An aerial view of the Bitra coral island of Lakshadweep. Image: Higher Than The Sky/YouTube, fair use
An excerpt from At the Feet of Living Things, edited by Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur and T.R. Shankar Raman, published by HarperCollins India, out September 26, 2022. The authors of the excerpted portion are Rucha Karkarey and Mayuresh Gangal.
Peering down from the boat on that new moon day, things seemed a bit unusual. The water was murkier than in the last two days, quite rare in these parts where the view is crystal clear down to a depth of fifteen metres. Underwater, Ummini1 unrolled a fifty-metre tape along the reef contour – a ‘transect line’, which would provide a reference point for us to census fish in the reef.
A few minutes later, Rohan, lead scientist of our research team, and I, Rucha, an aspiring PhD scholar, followed suit. We counted 176 fish on our first transect, twice as many as the previous day. Large squaretail groupers (Plectropomus areolatus) hovered along the slope (the edge of the reef that gently descended into the deep) like street hawkers at a village fair, restlessly peering into the distance as if waiting for something or someone to arrive.
Our colleague Vardhan, having abandoned his coral photo-clicking, was merrily engrossed in filming a large squaretail jostling another out of its territory. The grouper flashed a myriad of colours before it eventually locked jaws with the intruder: white when chased, marbled brown when displaying his might and black when resting.
As Ummini prepared to roll out the transect line a second time, he froze. He watched transfixed as a large shoal of 150 squaretails slowly sashayed on to the reef. Their arrival spurred a renewed frenzy of ardour among the larger males, who left their territories to entice several large-bellied females away from the shoal. Some females left the shoal to settle down with the courting males while the others maintained their sisterhood to withstand the marauding bucks. Meanwhile, planktivorous fish feasted on the milky plume, presumably fish spawn (ejected egg and sperm) wafting in the water column over the reef.
Squaretail groupers are large, piscivorous reef fish that can grow up to a metre long and are found across the tropical Indo-Pacific Ocean. Tawny coloured, with blue and black spots, they stealthily ambush their prey – in an uncanny resemblance to a leopard. Also like the big cat, squaretail groupers lead a more or less solitary life except for when they spawn, that is, when they gather in large numbers to reproduce.
These phenomenal events are called fish-spawning aggregations (FSAs). Healthy aggregations can have hundreds to thousands of individuals that gather from nearby reefs. FSAs generally occur around the new or full moon, after which the groupers disperse to their ‘home’ reefs. Many FSAs show a high fidelity to certain locations, mostly around lagoon channels and large promontories where water currents can be strong. The large sandbank at the mouth of the lagoon channel in Bitra was a textbook example of such a distinct location.
After chancing upon a large number of squaretails at this site in 2011, we had returned to monitor this site for a week around the new moon in January 2012, in order to ascertain if this was indeed an FSA. We estimated 849 groupers at the aggregation site in an area the size of a football field. The ingress of gravid females, territorial bucks and their curious courting rituals confirmed the spawning aggregation, a first in Indian waters. We were elated with this discovery! Did anyone in Lakshadweep even know about this?
Ummini, a veteran local diver, certainly did not. An earlier report, based on interviews with local fishermen in Lakshadweep, had not found any evidence either.
Could not knowing be a good thing? Apart from being wondrous spectacles of animal behaviour, FSAs are predictable and highly conspicuous, drawing fishermen from far and wide with the promise of bumper seasonal catches. Since fish that generally form spawning aggregations (such as groupers and snappers) are commercially valuable, fishermen target spawning aggregations for a guaranteed and lucrative catch. Aggregation fisheries are highly unsustainable; by stemming a crucial stage in the natural replenishment of fish populations, local stocks are often plundered to near extinction within years.
Ummini set out on a covert mission in Bitra to investigate this. He struck up conversations with islanders in the evenings, casually enquiring about seasonality in the catch of gravid fish and their locations, but in vain. The fishermen spoke at great length about pelagic tuna, their preferred protein, but were unassertive about nearshore reef fish that were neither fished commercially nor for subsistence. We left, planning to return the following year to further monitor the aggregation.
Thunderous applause resounded in the small classroom at the Bitra primary school, where eighty residents and fishermen sat together for a discussion in February 2013. Ummini paused a moment in his speech. ‘Not only is this the biggest aggregation of squaretails in all of Lakshadweep, it is amongst the largest in the world. What happens to the aggregation near this small island of a square kilometre and 300 people is of significance not only to your community, but also to Lakshadweep and the world,’ he reiterated emphatically. The islanders beamed with pride. ‘What can be done?’ Issaq, a fisherman, eagerly enquired. As planned, we had returned to Bitra in January 2013, a year after confirming the aggregation.
Mayuresh, who was working to become a fisheries scientist, was thrilled at the prospect of witnessing an FSA for the first time. He had not been certified as a SCUBA diver yet, but we had promised to take him snorkelling at the site. We approached Bitra at the crack of dawn and immediately noticed five tuna fishing boats anchored in the lagoon. Bitra was an important atoll where itinerant tuna fishermen from across Lakshadweep camped out for months, fishing for tuna in the northern sunken sandbanks of Cheriyapani and Veliyapani. After breakfast, we headed over to the aggregation site.
Underwater, a familiar scene unfolded – male groupers jostled and females shoaled in the water column ahead of the new moon. As was custom, we counted groupers along the permanent transect lines we had marked the previous year. Then, towards the end of the dive, something caught our eye. We saw a male squaretail furiously rubbing against a coral, his movements erratic, his colour pale. We noticed a large hook wedged into his mouth, with a metre-long trail of fishing line. As we watched him, the keels of two boats suddenly skimmed the surface above us. Their engines reverberated through the reef, making the groupers momentarily cease their pomp and pageantry and disperse haphazardly under cover.
We came up from the dive to see Mayuresh on one of the tuna boats, furiously taking notes and looking at his watch. ‘That boat caught thirty groupers in half an hour,’ Mayuresh said when he returned, looking very concerned. He showed us his calculations.
‘If three boats fish at this site for three hours each, they’d be able to catch up to 400 groupers. That’s half the number you counted underwater today!’ He continued, ‘They caught mostly females and a few large males.’ We watched as the tuna boats left for another place on the reef, wondering why they were fishing so close to it.
‘I don’t think they know about the aggregation. I think they’re just fishing on the reef because tuna catches are poor,’ Ummini said. A handful of agents from the mainland were now providing small sums for reef fish from Lakshadweep. The tuna fishermen would occasionally supplement their paltry tuna catches with reef fish. ‘If we speak to them, they’ll definitely stop. People in Lakshadweep want to protect their reefs,’ Ummini assured us. He told us how Minicoy managed its baitfish by conserving lagoon reef patches in rotation. We could cut off this indiscriminate reef fishing at the roots if we acted right away, we reasoned among ourselves, ever the young, idealistic scientists.
That night we paid a visit to Mr PPA, the island’s panchayat leader (leader of the local governing council). We showed him footage of the spawning aggregation and explained the curious biology of groupers and the fishing impact we had witnessed. He was wonderstruck. ‘If we are destroying our own natural wealth, then we have to take responsibility and do something about it,’ he told us and decided to organise a discussion with the islanders the following month. We took great courage from that conversation.
‘Some places manage this [FSAs] by permanently closing the aggregation sites to fishing,’ Ummini spoke at the meeting in Malayalam. There was unease among the fishermen. ‘But instead of a permanent closure [marine protected area] we could temporarily close the reef for a week around the new moon – two days before and after it between December and April. Our data show that the groupers use this location to spawn for that small duration. They don’t seem to be using the lagoon so we can fish there. In this way, we could share space with these groupers without restricting our activities or disturbing them when they spawn,’ Ummini suggested.
The fishermen deliberated the options for an hour and finally approved a week-long ban on fishing when the groupers aggregated to spawn. We left the island with a letter signed by the head of the Bitra panchayat and eighty islanders, requesting the Lakshadweep Fisheries Department to make a legislative order about the temporal fishing closure in Bitra during the fair fishing season.
Thereafter, the bureaucratic wheels in Kavaratti (the capital and seat of Lakshadweep administration) turned rather smoothly. We made presentations to various administrative departments: fisheries, science and technology, environment and forest, and the administrator. Everyone agreed that the Fisheries Department would be the most relevant department to sanction this order, which it did promptly. Thus, the Bitra ‘floating reserve’ was born.
The authors’ local friend and collaborator, introduced earlier in the book↩