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