Fish, at times, can get curious. When once Naveen Namboothri dove in the Andamans with his team to study corals, a bat fish took a liking to them, especially the research-intern. The fish swam around and occasionally into them. It frolicked with them. It kept beaching up with the intern till she felt the fish was being creepy. It even tagged along with the intern when she and the team were coming up. Another time, they were told a crocodile swam above them while they were underwater. Yet another time, it was a manta ray swimming above them.

Naveen is the founder-trustee and director of Bengaluru-based NGO Dakshin Foundation. Fascinated by the “cool things”  plants and animals can do, he took up biology, and did his Ph.D in marine biology from Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu. He works on community-led fisheries management in Lakshadweep and the Andamans, and explores how corals recover after bleaching events.

The conservation philosophy he espouses is human-and environment-centred, rather than stand-alone environment-centred. In a conversation with Fountain Ink, he talks about the marine world, especially in Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands.

Please talk about your organisation, Dakshin Foundation and its conservation philosophy.

Conservation and environmental issues are polarised today. This has become a conversation about environment versus development, conservation versus development.

Dakshin has positioned itself intentionally at the crossroads of development and environmental sustainability. We don’t believe in exclusionary kind of approach to natural resource management. We are firm that people are part of the system and should be allowed to exercise their rights to access natural resources. It’s unfair to keep people away from them.

Given the current contexts, the challenge is how to do so sustainably. Just like us, local communities have aspirations in life, too. At Dakshin we aim to build intervention models that balance people’s aspirations with environmental sustainability. It’s something that can be done.


How do you do this, aligning development with environmental health?

Some of these are local-specific issues, depending on where we’re working. We first understand what the complexities are—the social, cultural, ecological and economic dimensions of issues that are plaguing a system. Then we develop models of intervention that address some of these critical issues.

Focusing only on conservation issues and ignoring the social-cultural-economic challenges often leads to conflict. In any given site, we do spend significant time to understand the complexities involved.


Your team is working on community-led fisheries management in the Lakshadweep islands. Could you talk about what that entails?

In Lakshadweep, we’re working with fishing communities for the last four to five years. The method of fishing is pole-and-line fishing, one of the most sustainable examples of fishing in India, and probably in the world.

It’s very labour-intensive, no doubt. Lots of livelihoods are dependent on it. It’s also a highly skilled method of  fishing. It has been practised traditionally on Minicoy, one of the islands in the Lakshadweep archipelago, for centuries. It was later introduced to other islands in the 1960s by the fisheries department.


How is it done?

They have a special, traditionally-designed boat with a big, wide platform in the back and very shallow hull. About four to eight people stand on this platform with a single pole and line. Using a process called chumming, a sprayer fitted at the back sprays water into the sea, while one of them throws live bait into the water. A combination of the spray and live bait gets the tuna into a feeding frenzy. They get hooked on to the line which has a barbless hook. The hooked tuna is simply flicked on to the boat. So it is one-man-one-hook and one fish at a time. There is very little bycatch or wastage of fish unlike, for instance, trawl fisheries. Only a small portion of the tuna school is harvested, unlike industrialised purse seining operations, for instance, which harvests a sizeable population if not the entire tuna school, leaving behind little for procreation.

The fisheries target the skipjack tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis, which is a high turnover species and capable of attaining sexual maturity in a year’s time.In Lakshadweep, the pole and line fisheries have also managed to keep the fishing pressure away from the reefs, thereby helping them remain relatively healthy.

The pole-and-line tuna fisheries, however, are going through a transition. Because they don’t have the technology to sell it fresh, they convert it into dry fish, which is called “masmin” locally and Maldive fish elsewhere. Whatever is not sold fresh on the islands, is traded as masmin to places like Sri Lanka and the Southeast Asian countries. However, the markets and prices are strongly regulated by the middlemen and traders, thereby making the fisheries vulnerable to transitions led by economic unviability. The market side of the tuna fisheries is vulnerable to demand-supply dynamics.

Then there is the live bait fish resource. The live bait are species of small fish that are extracted from shallow lagoons. Fishers keep them alive on their boats till they find a school of tuna.

A community meeting at Agatti, Lakshadweep. Photo: Special arrangement

Bait resources on many Lakshadweep islands have been substantially overfished. A combination of unsustainable fishing practices, larger boats imposing more demand for bait and destruction of seagrass meadows by extensive sea turtle grazing has lead to severe declines in bait fish resources. On some islands, fishers need to travel more than eight hours to find baitfish to catch tuna that is just half-an-hour away. Now a combination of increasing operational costs, poor market returns and severe reduction of baitfish resources is forcing people to transition away from the pole and line tuna fishery.


So, your community-led programme is working on that problem...

Along with the fishers of Lakshadweep and with support from the local fisheries department, we have co-created a kind of monitoring programme. As part of the programme, the fishers keep records of their everyday operations. This is a simple data collection protocol, however, it is providing some very useful information on the patterns and trends in the fisheries.

Currently we have more than 4,000 entries over a four-year period and about 20-30 per cent of the active pole-and-line fishing boats have participated in the programme. Participation is entirely voluntary and the agreement we have made with the fishers is that we will ensure anonymity of the boat that provides the data. In return, we have requested the fishers to provide only reliable data. This arrangement has worked well so far and we are very confident that the data collected through our programme is reliable.

Many people have signed up for this but there have been some drop-outs as well. We find that it is often an individual on the boat who participates and shows interest in collecting data. Most importantly, more than the data itself, the process of engaging with fishers has led to conversations around sustainability, problems about fisheries.

Now, we’re looking at developing a co-management programme. Basically, trying to work with fishing communities, government and non-government agencies—all coordinating to manage fisheries.


Rules and regulations in Lakshadweep...

There is the Lakshadweep Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (LMFRA). All coastal states have a Marine Fisheries Regulation Act that regulates fisheries in a state. It often regulates who does what kind of fishing, where, what, and how. For instance, mechanised fishing such as trawling cannot be done within five nautical miles of the sea shore. These are areas set aside for small-scale artisanal fishermen. There are the seasonal fishing bans that are implemented quite successfully in most states.


For you to do this work, it needs money. Where does your funding come from?

We work with different institutions and individuals, and various other departments and organisations, particularly with fisheries and forest departments.

We seek funding based on the kind of project. We have two kinds of funding. One is for the institution itself, the core costs. Then there is project-specific funding.

For the Lakshadweep project, funding is from Tata Trusts for three years. Most of our institutional funding support comes from Ms. Rohini Nilekani and the Duleep Mathai Nature Conservation Trust.

We started ten years ago. But a large part of the growth and expansion happened in the last five years.

We have four programmes at Dakshin: The biodiversity and resource monitoring programme that I head has two sub-programmes—participatory fishery management and flagship species.

Through the flagship species programme, we are working on sea turtles, sharks, and so on. Since these charismatic animals spark interest, we leverage that to address issues conservation challenges, issues of equity, conflict, and often issues of the politics of conservation itself.


How do you address these?

For instance, our sea snake work in Malvan, Maharashtra, focuses on how fishery is affecting their populations. A large population of sea snakes are accidentally entangled in fishing nets. This study got us interested and involved in how what used to be trash fish or unintentional catch has now become a major economic driver of fisheries subsidising unsustainable fishing practices. We have been looking at the economics of it, why and how this affects marine ecosystems and what drives these unsustainable practices. We also simultaneously explore what kind of entry points we have into advocacy and policy recommendations, what agencies to tie up with to bring in regulation and management of resources, etc.

The goal is to develop a successful model that can facilitate environmentally friendly and economically and socially equitable fisheries management. This is not done successfully in India. If we can build it in one place, it would be useful for other places too.

Most environmental interventions take a long time to fructify. Tangible and measurable outcomes take a long time to materialise. This often discourages donors from investing in environmental projects.


Please talk about on-ground interventions you have undertaken.

A large part of our work so far has been focused on understanding the complexities and nuances of issues facing the small-scale fisheries sector. There are very few individuals or institutions that work in this sector. We are now developing and testing various models of ground level intervention that addresses the issues and challenges holistically. Once tested, we intend to scale up these models to reach out to at least a third of India’s 13 million-odd people who depend on the coastal and marine resources in some way or other.

Recently, in the Andamans, we have been working with the Karen community. They were brought during the British period as labourers to work in forests. They are highly skilled forest workers. Over the past five to seven decades, the Karens have variously used the oceans and forests of the Andamans and in the process building an in-depth understanding of the local environment. Many of us researchers who work in these islands have learnt a lot from them and some have even built our careers around that. From navigating the shallow reefs of these islands to finding their way around in thick evergreen forests, to knowing what species to find where, to making dug-out boat hulls from tree trunks of massive forest trees, these communities know a lot about the forests and oceans. Many of us, young and old researchers, have dipped freely into this local knowledge.However, this contribution is seldom recognised, valued or appreciated.

In the Karen village of Webi, in the Middle Andamans, we are assisting a cooperative society, mostly led by Karen women. Building on their existing skills, we are working on weaning them of exploitative practices such as hunting and fishing and instead use their skills to become tour guides, bird guides, trek guides and field assistants.


How are various factors like climate change and El Nino, land-use changes, fishing practices changing the Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar islands?

In Lakshadweep they are called atolls. People live on uplifted corals. They are in the middle of the Arabian Sea. These islands are pretty much flat with no forests or intense vegetation. Survival of the people here depends strongly on the health of the coral reefs.

It is in this context that the traditionally practised pole and line fishing becomes invaluable by diverting the fishing pressure off the reef.

However, our colleagues working in this area have reported increasing numbers of reef fisheries in the area. Fishers also report of large vessels from mainland India employing local fishermen for the reef fishing. Such sustained fishing is not good for the reef in the long run. There are also problems with climate change and El Nino events becoming more frequent.

Economically sustainable line-and-pole fishing in Lakshadweep. Photo: Special arrangement
In the Andaman islands, it’s a different system altogether. The reefs here are the fringing and barrier reef type. As the name indicates, the fringing reefs border the islands and the shallow basins around. The islands have a complex topography, with tropical forests, mangroves, sea grasses, and coral reefs. These islands are close to each other, and there is a lot of land-sea interaction. Unlike the Lakshadweep fisheries, here it’s entirely market-driven. It has better connectivity and can support the logistics needed to support post-harvest technologies. More processing and storage facilities have come up. Since it’s market-oriented fishery, there is a clear pattern of boom-and-bust cycles.

When shell fishery was in vogue, there was a lot of extraction of shells, primarily Trocus and Turbo shells. They were harvested completely. Shark fishery used to be big, and they were also harvested in very large numbers and now shark populations in shallow waters are very low. Similar patterns can be observed in the case of sea cucumbers and lobsters too. All these fisheries came crashing down. Currently grouper and green crab fisheries are being carried out in large numbers, however, they could also meet with the same fate sooner or later.

People involved in these fishing operations are from mainland India. Many are not necessarily fishermen. They are opportunistically harvesting resources that have a market value. Being communities who have relatively recently moved to these islands, their cultural relations and ties to the place and its environment are still nascent and evolving. Due to the lack of a strong sense of stewardship and cultural connections, fishing on these islands remain mostly profit-driven.

Unlike in the Lakshadweep where people are proud of their fisheries, with the pole-and-line way of fishing, the Andaman’s fisheries is opportunistic.


What about corals?

In Lakshadweep, they have not been badly abused. They used to extract dead corals for construction in the past. Now that bricks and other materials are available, dependence on corals for construction works has reduced a fair bit.

Colleagues at the Nature Conservation Fund have been studying corals for the past 20 years.  They have documented a clear pattern of reefs getting affected by climate change driven bleaching events. Reefs are very sensitive to temperature changes. What is alarming is that the time to recover is getting shorter and shorter, as the frequency of bleaching is increasing. There is not enough time to recover.

In the Andamans, the situation is slightly different. Here reefs are extensive and there are a lot of nutrients available in the coastal waters. While this helps maintain high levels of productivity, recent upstream changes in land use have lead to increased run-offs to coral reefs downstream. Land use changes along with reef fishing are huge problems on the reefs here. Combined with climate change, reef management can be a much more complex challenge for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Studies from both sites indicate that the reefs are undergoing major changes at scale. Increasingly, heat and stress tolerant species are surviving better and are dominating reef ecosystems. This is equivalent to one or two species of trees dominating entire forest patches. Large, massive, boulder forming genera such as Porites and encrusting species such as Montipora, both of which are capable of adapting to stress seem to be increasingly dominating many coral reef sites.


What about mainland India reefs?

The Gulf of Mannar reefs are the largest reef system in mainland India and have been exposed to fishing pressures for centuries. However, despite such sustained use, coral cover at many sites are still high (although it is often one or two species that dominate). Many sites inside the marine national park still have healthy reef systems.


You do reef monitoring. How do you that?

We use scuba equipment or snorkel. Scuba is an equipment-heavy affair. We go down, and document different aspects of reef, we do fish transects, take videos, sometimes conduct experiments. Many methodologies have been developed to do that. It is logistically challenging working in remote areas without appropriate boat-based support, it can be physically demanding and if not carried out properly can have health implications for the researchers.


What about tourism, its effect on corals?

The problem is not with tourism per se. If conducted in a responsible, equitable and well-regulated manner, it can be good. It’s one of the better ways of nature-based income generation and ensuring development of local communities. The amount you get as return for a grouper or a big shark, you’ll probably get ten times more if you show it to different people, without having to harvest it again.

But in badly-run places, reefs have taken a beating. For instance, the site off North Bay, South Andaman Island, has been open to mainstream tourists for a couple of decades and has been poorly managed and run. The result is a highly degraded reef ecosystem with little to no fish and coral life present.

In many other places in both the Lakshadweep and the Andamans people have been diving, without much disturbance to the reefs. Often, these positive stories are not told and it is only the negative stories that get told.

Seeing reefs also transforms people. Once you dive down, you see its beauty, you tend to get more involved in understanding them. Tourism can be a livelihood-generator, apart from awareness and educational experience.

It needs to be done properly. For instance, there should be stringent regulations on anchoring boats in dive sites and should not be done on the reef. Anchors damage corals often toppling them over or breaking them. There should be trained and certified people to take tourists out, to let them not walk over corals.

These management practices need to be put in place.


What did you do for the citizen-science project there?

We developed the Reef Log project to encourage recreational divers and dive-shop owners to contribute to monitoring and data collection. It was designed as a way for reef lovers to give back something to the reef. It’s a simple exercise. Any diver can participate in the programme. Using simple underwater guides, the participants keep track of key indicator species that they come across.

For instance, it could be star fish, known as Crown of Thorns starfish, that eats coral. Counting the number of starfish while you dive can be fun as well as provide valuable information. There are species you can keep of track of like sea urchins, sea turtles, sharks, groupers, giant clams, and sponges, and so on. Each tells you a different story.

The idea was to get simple data on indicator species. However, we have been finding it hard to sustain the programme as a dedicated team and funding is needed to collate, analyse and keep the interest and momentum up among the participants.


Any season, fishing gets more intense, how much fishermen make in that season...

Grouper fishing in the Andamans peaks during the Chinese new year and the price and demand for these fish goes up a lot. They can be anywhere between  ₹750-1,500 per kg. You can imagine how much will get added along the commodity chain.


Could you talk about fishing communities there...

Commercial fishing in the Andamans is mainly done by the Telugu, Bengalis and the Karen communities. The Telugu communities particularly from Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh are primarily fishers. While many are permanent residents, many come there seasonally, make decent amounts of money during the fishing season and return home during the monsoons. They are people who engage with net-based fisheries and catch sardine, mackerel, tuna and so on. Most of the other communities are involved in hook and line fishing.

The Bengali and Karen communities primarily engage in agriculture, and fishing is often a secondary practice.


Research groups working there...

Many groups work on both these island systems. In Lakshadweep, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Zoological Survey of India, Nature Conservation Foundation, Bombay Natural History Society, CARESS and the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the World Wide Fund for nature.

In the Andamans, there are a range of government and non-government research institutions working on coastal marine systems. The Zoological Survey of India, The Pondicherry University Marine Biology dept., National Institute of Ocean Technology, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Aquaculture, Central Agricultural Research Institute, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, The Fisheries Survey of India are some of the government research institutions. The Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (currently co-managed by the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Dakshin Foundation), Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Nature Conservation Foundation are some of the non-governmental organisations that work in the Andaman and Nicobar.

A lot of coordination needs to happen among these different research groups for meaningful interventions to happen.


Please talk about your own work.

I have been looking at coral bleaching and how they recover after major bleaching events and what drives the recovery. After the 1998 massive bleaching event, there was the 2010 bleaching event. That too was very big for the Andamans. Our research is indicating that recovery is location-specific. Juveniles of many species of corals commonly found earlier are becoming rarer and rarer. Probably indicating recruitment failures for some groups.


Which species are becoming rarer?

Species like acropora, the branching coral. It was abundant in the reefs in both Lakshadweep and Andamans. In the first few years after the 2010 bleaching, acropora colonies went down substantially in many places in the Andaman. Recovery happens when new recruits come and settle. We see very few acropora recruits.

One driver of recovery is availability of substrate. The larvae don’t come and settle where algae is growing. Once algae start growing , new recruits can’t come and settle. Then you need a lot of herbivorous fish to eat that algae and clean the place. That’s not happening. Fishing of such herbivorous fish can affect recovery rates.


What about invasive species?

There are a lot of invasive species in the marine systems not yet studied, and they could already be having a severe impact on livelihoods and economy.


Any particular species that has grown very much?

The Kappaphycus seaweed is one species that has been studied widely. This has invaded the coral reefs of the Gulf of Mannar a lot. It was promoted as an additional source of income, or alternative livelihood by Pepsico. It also arranged a buy-back system wherein they provided initial investment as well as purchased the seaweed from the communities. Kappa-carragenan, the extract from this seaweed is used in cool drinks and as a softening agent in many processed foods. It is also an excellent source of biofuel.

Despite its economic benefits, the species has become an invasive. Many studies have been done and there is clear evidence that it’s choking corals in the Gulf of Mannar national park. 


Has it reached the Andamans and Lakshadweep?

There was a news report a few strands were recorded on the beaches of Andamans, but there is no conclusive evidence of their presence.


How do invasives arrive here?

Most of the invasive species come in ballast water in the ships. Ballast water contains all kinds of organisms from various places of origin. Once these ships reach our shores and the water is released, most of them cannot survive in our water. But the most resilient ones survive and could become invasive.

Other sources are by way of aquarium trade. Many species in marine systems have become invasive after being introduced as aquarium species. Others introduced as species for large-scale culture and harvest (such as Kappaphycus) have also become invasives. There are hardly any studies and documentation on invasives and their economic impact.


How does it feel like to be a marine biologist and conservationist?

Oh, they are vastly different.

A conservationist’s job can be slow, thankless and demoralising at the best of times. The change you want to bring about requires engaging with issues that are complex. A training in biology or ecology doesn’t prepare you for most of the hurdles you have to pass. One has to be ready to fight many losing battles, often make compromises, be ready to be labelled as anti-development. It can be demoralising at the best of times.

Being a marine biologist is fun. You have less complex issues to grapple with, you can decide what you want to work on, etc. You get to dive a lot and you see a beautiful world out there.