16 Nov 2023
Coral reefs are extremely biodiverse and dynamic ecosystems of vital socio-economic importance to coastal communities across the tropics, whose historic dependence on coral reefs for their food, livelihood and recreation has evolved into complex human-ecological relationships with the cultural significance of reefs at its centre (Leach et al., 1999; Sadovy, 2005). Today, however, reefs across the world are threatened by a variety of anthropogenic stressors, chief of which is climate-induced thermal stress that has resulted in mass coral mortality across the globe, including in my study site, the Lakshadweep archipelago in the Western Indian Ocean (Goldberg & Wilkinson, 2004; McClanahan, 2002). Studies that have documented reef recovery have found that a complex interplay of factors influence the extent to which the ecosystem is able to regain function and build resilience to future disturbance (Arthur et al., 2006).
Reef fishing is a significant factor that influences reef health. Reef fisheries across the world have reported stark declines in populations of species belonging to higher trophic levels (reef sharks and predatory teleosts such as groupers, snapper, emperors and jacks). (Burt et al., 2018; Frisch et al., 2014, 2014; Hammerschlag et al., 2018). Predators have cascading effects through prey populations on benthic habitat structure and function (Hammerschlag et al., 2018; Heupel et al., 2014; Wirsing & Ripple, 2011). Herbivorous fish, on the other hand, play a crucial role in mediating competition between coral and algae and promoting coral recruitment (Bruno et al., 2018; Lokrantz et al., 2009). Other ecological processes facilitated by reef fish include bioerosion and nutrient cycling (Burt et al., 2018; Perry et al., 2015; Rizzari et al., 2014; Schmitz et al., 2010).
Reef fish are often long-lived, territorial and occur in relatively low densities. This makes their populations vulnerable to even small-scale fishing (Goetze et al., 2011; Hawkins & Roberts, 2004). Reef fishing in the Lakshadweep has historically been artisanal and small-scale, although commercial extraction has intensified in the past decade (Arthur et al., 2006; Jaini et al., 2018; Karkarey et al., 2014). While researchers have documented the evolution of this fishery, its effect on the reef fish community is not very well understood and forms the main objective of my study. Through a combination a key informant surveys with the fisher community and in-water surveys of the reef fish community, I hope to understand its ecological impact and contribute to the conservation of this complex socioecological system.