This past week, the Turtle Diaries Team applied for permits to document important marine research efforts in the Lakshadweep Islands…Seated west of mainland India in the Arabian Sea, the Lakshadweep Archipelago contains 36 islands, covering a diminutive 32 square kilometers, as well as coral reef systems now recovering from a severe El Nino event (1998). Last year we explored the Arabian Sea’s edges along Gujarat—this winter we hope to return further south of those waters.
We are aiming to follow the efforts of key researchers like Dr. Rohan Arthur, who was first drawn to Lakshadweep during the 1998 crash of coral reefs. At the time, the reefs “were in the throes of one of the worst climate change-related events in recorded history…” Temperatures sky-rocketed beyond normal and the reefs quickly became a “dead zone.”
“Within a few months of the 1998 El Niño event, ocean temperatures had risen more than three degrees above normal in the Arabian Sea, and I was diving in coral graveyards, which were, not too long ago, vibrant playgrounds… climate change was something I had to deal with if I was interested in understanding the coral reefs of the Lakshadweep.”
Beyond all expectations, the coral reef systems are now on the way to recovery. Once again they are growing towards the levels of complexity and color that serve as important habitats for sea turtles and fishes. And, inevitably, they serve as important habitats for the fishermen who have plunged their nets into those waters in the past.
Interestingly, there was a shift in the 1970s. The fishermen of Lakshadweep Islands turned away from coral reefs, to focus on fishing pelagic waters, since tuna fishing was lucrative and gave them good returns. Years of protecting the coral reefs— by benign neglect— has been key to their recovery. More recently, the fishermen are coming back to hunt the recovering reef systems, quite possibly because of increasing fish populations.
Since most islanders are fishermen, is it possible to draw them away from coral reef zones now?
While Arthur’s work is firmly entrenched in research, he also believes the foundation of new knowledge can be used to inform local communities. Spreading awareness can work as an important instrument of change in drawing the Lakshadweep fisherfolk towards awareness— of their precious resources, of the need to protect them and of the costs and benefits associated with hunting those resources. He has been in conversation with community members for some time, interviewing them to understand their predicaments. Sympathy is a solid foundation for trust.
In terms of initiatives possible for the future, “You give them a platter of choices, telling them this could affect their livelihood…and they trust the process… It was economic incentive that changed everything. Now the fisheries have been so successful that most fishermen are working together with the fisheries development policy…”
Continued dialogues with fishermen and policy makers, catalyzed by the ground reality of research by Arthur and his colleagues, will hopefully result in a new shift. With a population density of over 2000 people per square kilometer, a decision to minimize impacts on the delicate coral reef waters will almost certainly be linked to the health of that system.
Rohan Arthur’s El Nino quote comes from his blog, Turtle soup: Of turtles, sea grass and conflict on an island in the Lakshadweep, which can be found at: http://madrascrocbank.blogspot.com/2007/09/turtle-soup-of-turtles-sea-grass-and.html