On The Line

An island in Lakshadweep tries to save a remarkable spawning site

01 September 2015

THE ISLAND OF BITRA is one of the northernmost inhabited points in the Lakshadweep archipelago. Azure waters surround beaches of pale yellow sand fringed with coconut and casuarina trees. Underwater, a thriving coral metropolis houses reef fish of every imaginable shape and colour.

One evening around six or seven years ago, Hamsa Koya and his brother, residents of the island, set out to sea to fish. Koya steered a kundalam, a mid-sized fishing boat with an outboard engine, carefully across the shallow waters of the island’s lagoon. He headed for a popular fishing spot that the locals called “furathabam.” Here, where a red buoy marked the lagoon channel, they often fished for chammali, or paddletail snapper, a species that lives in large shoals among nearby coral boulders. Like a few other residents of Bitra, Koya sells his catch for a living. Most others are subsistence fishermen, fishing to feed their families.

That day, Koya rode out a little further, south of the channel, to the outer reef. In these deeper waters, the fishermen were more likely to find large metti, or red snapper, whose meat Bitra’s residents are particularly fond of. They stilled the boat’s engine, lowered an anchor, and fastened hooks to their fishing lines, which had been neatly rolled around flat wooden boards. Then, they spun the hooks over their heads, and hurled them as far as they could into the sea, sending the lines unfurling through the air.

As he waited with his line in the water, Koya noticed something unusual. A swarm of dark brown shapes rose from the depths. Koya thought he recognised the peculiar movements of these fish, with their tails sashaying against the current. But he had never seen so many of them in one place before.

A male squaretail grouper, scarred from territorial battles, at the aggregation site, where thousands of groupers migrate at a particular time to mate.

His line caught, and he bent down to slowly reel it in, playing a familiar game with the creature on the other end, keeping his eyes on the darkening water. He pulled his catch out. It was a scaly brown fish, with spots of electric blue, glistening in the twilight—a kokka-chammam, or squaretail grouper, of about the length of his arm. He removed the hook from its gills, and tossed the quivering fish into a gunnysack at the back of the boat. Then he threw his line in again, and effortlessly hooked another. And another. Koya’s confusion rose. It normally took him at least an hour to catch even a single kokka-chammam. That day, within ten minutes, he had caught a whole pile.

Koya had stumbled upon a spawning aggregation: hundreds, even thousands, of fishes from a wide swathe of coral reef migrating to a particular site, at a particular time, to mate. This mating behaviour has been observed with over 100 reef fish species. Females release eggs into the water, where they are fertilised by males. Ocean currents then carry the fertilised eggs into open water, where they develop into fish larvae over three or four weeks. The larvae then swim to a coral reef, populating it anew. Aggregation sites, though small, can have large spheres of influence, dispersing juvenile fish over distances of up to 100 kilometres. A healthy reef fish population is often linked to a handful of spawning aggregation sites nearby.

Though the spawning site at Bitra had presumably been active for many years, no one on the island seemed to know of it. As part of a small group of marine biologists working in the area, we had spent many months surveying these waters and interacting with local communities, but had never heard anyone mention it before Hamsa Koya did.

We arrived in Bitra in 2010, after diving around eight of Lakshadweep’s southern islands, as part of an archipelago-wide survey of coral reefs after a catastrophic temperature-related disturbance in 2010. Near Bitra’s outer reef, anchored a fair distance south of the furathabam, our kundalam sat motionless on the placid water of a receding morning tide. The island was a speck on the horizon.

While assembling our diving gear, we noticed that the sea under us was murky—an unusual sight in Lakshadweep. Geared up, we rolled off the boat, barely able to see the bottom as we descended to the reef. The tumult there was a world away from the calm above. Swarms of squaretail groupers moved across the reef floor, darting around rocks and boulders. Large males staked out and aggressively defended territory, locking jaws with each other and flashing myriad colours: white when fleeing, marbled-brown when warding off intruders, black when resting.

About half an hour later, as we watched transfixed, the jostling paused for a second, and the entire reef appeared to hold its breath. A large shoal of elegant, olive-coloured female squaretails emerged from the deep, and swam slowly towards the reef. Moments later, the males began darting about with renewed ardour, swimming up to the shoal, shimmying behind wary females, rushing back to their territories to chase away competitors. We followed these elaborate courtship displays for more than an hour and a half, and surfaced only when the air in our tanks ran dangerously low.

Coming up from that dive, we wondered if this was a one-off occurrence. We began to monitor the site in the following years, usually visiting between December and April and staying about a week each time.

Commercial fishing boats are drawn to Bitra, whose waters are rich with a variety of fish, from snappers and groupers to sharks and rays.

We noticed that males typically arrived at the site three days before a new moon, to claim territories in anticipation of the female shoals, which appeared two days later. The spawning usually took place on new-moon nights, and both the males and females dispersed by the third day after the event. We found that the aggregation was predictable: for five months of the year, between December and April, with every new moon thousands of squaretail groupers spawned at this four-hectare patch of reef.

We found that the aggregation was predictable: for five months of the year, between December and April, with every new moon thousands of squaretail groupers spawned at this four-hectare patch of reef.

We were surprised that the fishermen were unaware of this. Perhaps, we thought, knowledge of reef fish had atrophied with the passing of generations, especially since younger fishermen preferred to fish in deeper waters for tuna, which fetch higher prices in the market. But even the older fishermen knew nothing of the aggregation.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been too surprised. A study conducted a few years earlier, based on interviews with fishermen across the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, revealed that, besides a few anecdotes, there was very little information about reef fish spawning aggregations in India.

Our observations were the first formal documentation of a grouper spawning aggregation in Indian waters based entirely on direct underwater surveys. We recorded densities of over 3,600 fish over four hectares—an area roughly the size of five football fields. This was between two and six times higher than any density previously recorded across south-east Asia, in places such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia, where squaretail grouper aggregations are known to occur. The densities of squaretail grouper in Bitra were perhaps the highest of any site in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Mallik-Maula mosque, believed to be 300 years old, is revered across Lakshadweep.

This was an exciting find, and one that raised many questions. How far did fish migrate to get here? Could this site be a population source for the rest of the archipelago? Top predators such as groupers are critical parts of reef ecosystems, and are particularly vulnerable to the degradation of habitats and fluctations in food supplies that occur in climatically disturbed areas. The aggregations we saw were a sign of exuberance in an ocean being rapidly depleted of its marine life. The spawning reassured us that certain ecological functions, at least, were still undisturbed in these wounded reefs.

The aggregations we saw were a sign of exuberance in an ocean being rapidly depleted of its marine life. The spawning reassured us that certain ecological functions, at least, were still undisturbed in these wounded reefs.

But it also brought with it a sense of worry. Aggregations, with the bumper catches they offer, are naturally attractive to fishermen. Overfishing during these events can be particularly disastrous for a species, and for ecosystems as a whole. How would Bitra’s people react to knowledge of the regular abundance of these fish in their waters? If steps weren’t taken to protect the aggregation, fishing here could lead to extirpation—the local, and sometimes regional, extinction of a species.

BITRA IS THE SMALLEST INHABITED ISLAND in the Lakshadweep archipelago, which lies 400 kilometers off the south-west coast of India. Its ten hectares are home to around 200 Malayalam-speaking Muslims. The place has been permanently settled for less than a century, largely by people from the island of Chetlat, around 48 kilometres away—a six-hour journey by kundalam.

Bitra has only a primary school, and children are sent to Chetlat or Kavaratti, the capital of Lakshadweep, for further educational and professional pursuits. Few return to the island. Many of the relatively young residents here today are government employees, posted from other islands on short-term assignments. There are a few metalled roads, but no cars or motorbikes, unlike on some rapidly urbanising islands in Lakshadweep. The pace of life, then, is slow, dictated by the elderly.

The island doesn’t have a steady supply of fresh water, and residents make do with harvested rainwater and a few borewells. The water from these wells, however, is drinkable only seasonally. Groundwater levels dip in the summer months, and bacteria activated by the heat give the water a foul, sulphurous smell. Potable water is then brought in from Chetlat—which is also a vital source of food and medical supplies for the island.

Despite its isolation, and difficulties such as an uncertain supply of potable water, locals see Bitra as a place of comfort and sanctuary.

Yet, despite all of this, Bitra’s inhabitants consider it a place of comfort and sanctuary. “I own four boats today, after I moved to Bitra from Chetlat,” Sainul Abid, a former tuna fisherman who became the island’s elderly kazi, or religious head, once proudly told us. Like many others on Bitra, the kazi, who died this July, considered the island blessed. It is home to the Mallik-Maula Masjid, believed to be 300 years old (though now rebuilt) and revered across Lakshadweep. The mosque is thought to bring luck to all who visit it.

For work, besides fishing, the islanders manage with a few government jobs. These include teaching at the primary school, running a cooperative society that manages resources such as foodgrains and fuel, and working at the island’s powerhouse or waterworks. A few people are also employed as construction labourers.

Though the fisheries department was initially reluctant to get involved, its officials were persuaded by the community’s support for the conservation initiative.

Taha Gafoor, the kazi’s younger son, is a teacher at the school. He lives in a modest, two-room cottage with his mother, his brother, his wife and their infant son. Content with the quiet and stability of a government position, Gafoor fishes occasionally, seeing it not as a livelihood but part of a way of life. Almost all the local men fish, whether as a tradition or to put food on the family table.

The most favoured meat in Lakshadweep is tuna. This is usually cooked in curries, with coconut milk and chilli paste, or fried in neat cuts, before being eaten with rice. It is also cured and sun-dried to make tuna jerky, or “maas,” which is sold whole or coarsely ground, to be used to flavour various dishes. Across the archipelago, when tuna is plentiful subsistence fishermen rarely go out to fish on the reefs.

Tuna are pelagic, or open-sea, fish, and migrate back and forth across ocean deeps, rarely venturing into shallow waters and coral reefs. Their populations are capable of sustaining relatively intensive fishing since tuna reproduce year-round and mature quite quickly, in just a year or two. By contrast, many reef fish, including groupers, mature late and reproduce only over short periods of a year. Spawning aggregations are crucial events in their lives, because they are the only times the fish breed.

Lakshadweep’s preference for tuna, and its organised tuna fishery, inadvertently protects the region’s reefs from heavy human use. Bitra in particular has a reputation for plentiful tuna stocks, and has always attracted itinerant fishermen, especially between November and April. Across Lakshadweep, tuna make up 80 percent of all fish landings—that is, the reported catch. Even with very few professional fishermen, Bitra reported more than 300 tonnes of tuna landings in 2011—nearly 3 percent of Lakshadweep’s total that year. This is possibly an underestimate of Bitra’s share of the total catch, since most visiting fishermen report all their landings to their islands of residence.

The numbers of visiting fishermen in Bitra’s waters have increased over the years, sometimes irking the island’s residents. “Outsiders,” Taha Gafoor once told us, “make a lot of money for themselves while Bitra’s land and water suffer.” He took us to an abandoned fishermen’s campsite, strewn with plastic bottles and fish entrails, on a beach on the north-eastern tip of the island. The islanders have previously appealed for the archipelago’s administration to restrict access to their waters, but to no avail.

Alarmingly, outside fishermen have also taken to commercial reef fishing around Bitra in the last four years, drawn not just by tuna but also an abundance of other species, from snappers and groupers to sharks and rays. Their work continues over the months between November and May. Even before the aggregation was clearly documented, word of high catches during the spawning season had spread.

A commercial vessel buys reef fish from local fishermen in Bitra.

Fishing at spawning aggregations elsewhere in the world has been catastrophic. Famously, the Nassau grouper, native to the Mexican Caribbean, was declared commercially extinct—so rare that catching it is no longer commercially viable—less than a decade after intensive fishing of the species began, in 1996. Several historical sites of grouper aggregation in Indonesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea, which survived generations of artisanal fishing, lie empty today after being indiscriminately plundered by the live reef fish food trade. This multinational industry, abbreviated as the LRFFT, involves the capture and trade of live reef fish for sale and consumption, primarily in east-Asian markets, including Hong Kong, mainland China and others. It may not be long before the LRFFT turns to the reefs of Lakshadweep too.

Such unsustainable fishing has disastrous knock-on effects. The removal of large predators such as groupers initially causes populations of smaller fish to increase, putting more pressure on primary producers such as plants and phytoplankton, which they rely on for food. Fairly rapidly, fishermen begin to target these smaller fish, of lower economic value, resulting in a phenomenon described as “fishing down the food web.” This can disrupt the marine food web in complex and unpredictable ways, and risks quickly leaving the ecosystem barren. In Fiji, the overfishing of top piscivorous fish has indirectly affected the health of coral reefs. Across the Caribbean, the removal of large herbivorous fish has transformed several reef systems into algal habitats, also hurting the livelihoods of people who depend on them.

Inevitably, then, our initial exultation gave way to concern. From examples around the world, it appeared that known spawning aggregations invariably succumb to targeted fishing. We saw early signs of this in December 2013, when a single commercial fishing boat caught six tonnes of groupers off Bitra in just three days during the spawning period.

IN FEBRUARY 2014 we presented our findings to a group of around 80 Bitra fisherfolk, in a small classroom at the primary school. On one of its walls, we projected underwater photographs of the aggregation, as well as videos of males fighting, shoals entering the area, and males courting females.

As the reef came alive on the classroom wall, the audience fell silent, save for a few gasps and whispers. “This is the only aggregation in Lakshadweep,” we said, as MK Ibrahim, our field coordinator, translated into Malayalam. “One of the biggest aggregations in the world,” we added.

At these words, the room erupted in thunderous applause.The islanders hooted at a looping video of swarming groupers. We spoke to them about the phenomenon of spawning aggregations, about the peculiarities of the Bitra aggregation, its significance, and the consequences of exposing it to fishing. We discussed other grouper spawning aggregations from across the world, and how they were extirpated, leading to heavy economic losses for dependent communities. We mentioned that aggregation sites were protected in some places, including Indonesia and the island of Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean, through local systems of temporary fishing closure.

The room filled with enthusiastic chatter over how to protect the Bitra aggregation. Over the din, Hamsa Koya eagerly narrated his encounter with a grouper swarm, which he had long relegated to the back of his mind. He said he was proud that his little island hosted such a charismatic event.

It was clear the island’s inhabitants were willing, and eager, to look after the aggregation. The discussions spilled onto the streets, and into the houses of the islanders. That very night, the Bitra village panchayat drafted a letter to the Fisheries Department of Lakshadweep, asking for a temporary closure on fishing at aggregation sites during spawning periods.

Later that month, we delivered the letter to the administration in Kavaratti, formalising their request. Though the fisheries department was initially reluctant to get involved, its officials were persuaded by the community’s support for the conservation initiative. In March 2014, with the department and the islanders working together, an administrative order established a temporary fishing closure.

The department saw the order as a stopgap measure, to be converted into policy in subsequent years. Bitra’s entire outer reef was closed to fishing for seven days each in March and April 2014. But fishermen were allowed to fish in the island’s vast, 4,300-hectare lagoon for this time. With the islanders’ backing, the assistant director of fisheries for Lakshadweep personally called owners of commercial fishing boats to explain the order and ask them to comply.

In effect, Bitra had created a temporary reserve. This was unique for marine conservation in India—the first initiative to protect a natural resource without entirely restricting its harvest in an area. Conventionally, India enforces permanent closures in protected areas, often with minimal flexibility.

One example is the Mahatma Gandhi National Park in the Andaman Islands, established in 1983 under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. This protected area covers 15 uninhabited islands, but is circled by eight densely populated fishing villages. Monitoring the area and enforcing compliance with its rules continues to be a challenge. The Malvan Marine Sanctuary in Maharashtra, and the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park in Tamil Nadu, face similar problems. In all these areas, locals feel the rules imposed by the government adversely affect their livelihoods.

In the absence of an administrative order, the panchayat independently issued a notice restricting fishing at the aggregation site during spawning periods between December 2014 and April 2015.

Such permanent closures can be unnecessarily restrictive, particularly in poor or remote areas where residents depend heavily on ocean resources. They are also particularly difficult to enforce in open marine systems, where boundaries are hard to draw. In Bitra, the flexibility of the proposed solution and the involvement of the local community—critical in such an isolated place—helped the initiative succeed.

For those 14 days in March and April, commercial fishing vessels did not enter Bitra’s waters. We learnt that they either continued operating elsewhere in Lakshadweep, or returned to Kochi or Mangalore on the mainland. The local and visiting fishermen also complied fully, avoiding the outer reef. The temporary fishing closure was a resounding success.

When we visited Bitra last March, during the period of aggregation, we even noticed several fishermen keeping watch over the waters from the island’s jetty. We struck up a conversation, and asked what they would do if they found someone defying the order. “I will make him feel guilty about what he has done,” one of them, Isaak, said, with obvious amusement. Haider, an elderly tuna fisherman, said, “I will file a police complaint and request that the department revoke his license.” With the support of the administration, the Bitra islanders had turned into wardens of their own reef.

UNFORTUNATELY, THIS SUCCESS DIDN'T LAST LONG. In December 2014, the administration failed to renew the temporary fishing closure from the previous season, as it had assured us it would. For the next three months, we tried to emphasise the urgency of shielding spawning aggregations in the department’s offices, but these efforts proved futile. Even the Bitra panchayat’s requests to reinstate the temporary reserve did not work. We heard rumours about the reasons for this: a decline in tuna landings the previous year, opposition from fishermen’s unions, political intent to promote commercial fishing in the islands. This narrative had unfolded in several places across the world—aggregations doomed to extinction by the pressures of markets, political wrangling, and bureaucratic apathy and inefficiency.

When we arrived at Bitra to monitor the aggregation this February, however, we found that the locals had not quite accepted defeat. As we landed at the jetty, at the crack of dawn, a group of boys recognised us, and welcomed us with shouts of “kokka-chammam!” On the walk to our rooms, we passed groups of women on the beach, and overheard them discussing the squaretail grouper. One local told us that Sainul Abid, the kazi, planned to preach the protection of spawning aggregations in his afternoon sermons. Later that evening, Isaak showed us a map he had drawn, showing places around Bitra and other islands in Lakshadweep where he suspected there were other spawning aggregations.

Taha Gafoor, too, brought us heartening news: in the absence of an administrative order, the panchayat had independently issued a notice restricting fishing at the aggregation site during spawning periods between December 2014 and April 2015. An A4-size sheet of paper listing the dates of the renewed closures in neat longhand was pasted outside the panchayat office.

The squaretail grouper was never a part of Lakshadweep’s ancient traditions. It is not a popular food, nor does it have any religious significance. But in Bitra, in just a year, the grouper had emerged as a totem, a symbol that the locals had accepted as their own.

A shoal of olive-coloured female groupers arrive at the aggregation site.

But this alone is not enough. While local fishermen complied fully with the temporary restrictions this year, fishermen from other islands did not. As Haider pointed out, “How can we prevent the outsiders from doing so when there is no official government ban?”

Even Bitra’s resolve, though, will increasingly be challenged by financial temptations. The tentacles of an emerging reef fish trade are rapidly spreading across Lakshadweep. By our count, at least five commercial boats were operating in the waters around Bitra this year, up from two last year. Rising demand in foreign markets means the prices of reef fish have increased, and groupers fetch some of the highest rates. In 2013, fishermen sold their catch to bigger traders for about Rs55 per kilogram; today, a kilogram fetches Rs80.

“The profits from the aggregation are going to other islands,” Pu Koya, a professional tuna fisherman, complained. “If we are being restricted from gaining the same profits, the government will have to give us incentives.”

On our visit to the aggregation site this year, we found startling damage. Fish numbers had dropped to almost half of the 3,600 we were used to seeing, and the place wasn’t bustling with the usual activity. There were no elegant female shoals swarming above the reef. There were no distinctive mating behaviours. The site looked like a warzone: broken anchor lines littered the reef, and injured fish swam around with hooks dangling from their mouths. A thriving spawning aggregation was in decline after just one year’s exposure to fishing.

A week later, as we loaded up our boat to leave, a ten-tonne commercial fishing vessel sailed into the lagoon. Seven fishing boats, all from other islands, trailed in its wake, seeking a place to anchor for the next two weeks or so. As we pulled away, and Bitra shrank to a speck, our usual chatter was replaced by long silences. No one wanted to state the obvious—that we might not see the grouper aggregation when we came back next year.

Rucha Karkarey is a marine biologist working in the Lakshadweep archipelago with the Nature Conservation Foundation. Her work on corals and groupers contributes towards understanding how climate-related disturbances are affecting the ecological functions of coral reefs.

Shreya Yadav is a marine biologist working in the Lakshadweep archipelago with the Nature Conservation Foundation. Her work on corals and groupers contributes towards understanding how climate-related disturbances are affecting the ecological functions of coral reefs.