The Lakshadweep Islands, located 200 km off the coast of Kerala, are special for so many reasons. India’s only atolls, these 36 islands together total a mere 32 sq km of land. Surrounded by over 640 sq km of reef area and over 400,000 sq km of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), they are rich in marine biodiversity and culture.
Each island is a geological marvel. Atolls are ring shaped reefs that surround shallow lagoons. Sand and rubble often get deposited on the leeward side of the ring, creating enough dry land for occupation by plants and animals. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Lakshadweep’s coral reefs grew over and around the Chagos-Laccadive ridge that extends through the Maldives and up till the Chagos archipelago. As sea levels rose and the ridge subsided, coral grew upwards, leaving behind these atolls.
Only 11 of the 36 islands of the Lakshadweep are inhabited. With a total population of over 65,000 people, this region hosts the highest rural population densities across India. Communities here are near homogenous, follow Islam, and also a matrilineal system of inheritance. The southernmost atoll of Minicoy was originally a part of the Maldives and to date maintains a distinct cultural identity, speaking Maldivian Dhivehi, while the rest of the Lakshadweep Islands occupied by settlers from Kerala, speak Malayalam.
Tuna and coconut are Lakshadweep’s main exports. Originating in the Maldives and traditionally practiced in Minicoy, pole and line tuna fishing is a sustainable, low-impact fishing method that targets the resilient skipjack tuna. Starting in the 1960s, the local fisheries department trained people across Lakshadweep in this technique and provided support for expanding tuna fishing operations and export. As a result, even today, the majority of the island fishers practice pole and line tuna fishing, and inadvertently protect the reef from overexploitation.