By Mahima Jaini
We had been out at sea for 12 hours, battling the scorching sun, searching the seemingly empty sea for signs of tuna. With only a meager 100 fish in a boat that can hold 1000s, it was no surprise that we were headed to the Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) to redeem our day of fishing within the remaining the few hours of daylight.
FADs are artificial structures moored to the ocean floor that serve to attract fish. Acting as sheltered habitats in the structure-less deep sea, these FADs draw in entire food webs. Unfortunately, their tendency to attract mostly juveniles has meant that fishing at these structures can result in growth overfishing and higher rates of bycatch of non-target species. Even though the few bouts of tuna we got in the open sea consisted of larger skipjack, they were too few and too scarce to make up a day’s worth, thus the boat ventured another 12 nautical miles to the FAD closest to Kavaratti late that evening.
At the FAD we caught one lonely jack and a mix of tuna species including skipjack, yellowfin and little tunnies. Our venture to the Lakshadweep Fisheries Department moored FAD provided the boat with over 200 fish, mostly immature individuals between 15 – 45 cm in total length, and helped us just about break even for the day.
This opportunity aboard the F.V. Share Mubarak with our friend and field guide, Anwar, along with 9 other fishers, provided me with valuable insights for our work in Lakshadweep, but also really drove home the kind of struggles these fishers face on a daily basis. Despite the fact that the live-bait pole and line technique is a well-recognized sustainable mode of fishing tuna, these fishers bear the brunt of large scale tuna stock declines in the Indian Ocean, often resorting to unsustainable practices like the use of FADs and reef fishing.
The Fisheries Department in Lakshadweep promotes FADs as they provide the safety of a fixed location and a certain surety of catch to local fishermen. The main boats operating in this fishery are wooden crafts about 35 ft in length with onboard holding tanks for live baitfish and limited GPS abilities. Fishers themselves recognize the unsustainable nature of FADs but are huge proponents of the measure as they help reduce wastage of effort. Fisheries unions and associations all over the islands gather funds to install these FADs near to their islands with the support of the Fisheries Department. In a data poor system like the Lakshadweep islands, uncertainties in stock health and the unknown nature of its status, make the use of FADs a risky proposition.
As we move forward with our research and monitoring interventions in the Lakshadweep islands, we must consider what this means for sustainability. On the one hand is the key issue of livelihood security, on the other is the preservation of a critical resource and ocean predator. One way to buffer the use of FADs may be to set aside certain FADs as protected sites to safeguard fish stock rather than exploit it. Working with the community to develop solutions and safeguard marine environments while ensuring livelihoods lies at the fore front of our work. Currently we are engaging community members in long-term fisheries monitoring and environmental education in the Lakshadweep Islands, aimed at filling data gaps while enhancing stakeholder participation in fisheries monitoring and policy making.