RODRIGUES, Mauritius (Reuters) - Louis Emanuel has been fishing off his tiny Indian Ocean island home for 23 years.
The 46-year-old father of three does not know about climate change. But he does know the waves are getting bigger, the fish harder to catch and the coral reef is slowly dying.
Conservationists point the finger at global warming, and Louis blames overfishing off Rodrigues too.
“When I fished long ago, there were lots of fish,” he tells Reuters. “Now there are lots of boats.”
Rising sea temperatures, sunlight and thousands of impoverished fishermen trying to feed their families have depleted the turquoise waters of Rodrigues’ lagoon.
A few miniscule fish can be seen fighting the currents, but the grey piles of dead coral are only enlivened by rare splashes of color from purple sea urchins and tiny living corals.
“Fish don’t feed on dead coral,” Louis says. Unlike most fishermen, he ventures outside the lagoon in search of a living.
But that is becoming more dangerous. In March, a big wave washed him right out of his boat. Two months later, freak waves killed three of his colleagues and two coastguards sent to help.
The small palm-fringed island, 350 miles northeast of Mauritius, has been lucky in some respects.
Strong sunlight and a sharp sea temperature rise killed about three-quarters of the region’s coral a decade ago, but a nearby cyclone with its clouds and cooling winds guarded the island.
Emily Hardman, a British coral expert who has lived and worked on Rodrigues for three years, says the island’s coral should have been bleached — referring to the loss of color associated with global warming that leads to coral’s death.
The reef around Rodrigues still has a significantly higher amount of coral coverage than the global average, she says.
But the island’s luck may now be running out.
Coral bleaching is expected to become more common, and the 38,000 inhabitants of Rodrigues can do little themselves to fight against global warming.
With an area of about 100 square kms (40 square miles), the hilly island offers little other employment besides small-scale agriculture, tourism and fishing.
“There are no other ways to make a living, so everybody turns to the sea,” says Louis.
That over-fishing is damaging the coral badly, as fishermen smash it by walking through the shallows with a net, dropping their anchors and traps, or even — in the case of the island’s octopus fisherwomen — smashing the coral with spears.
In a bid to reverse the decline, the island’s Chief Commissioner Johnson Roussety says four protected lagoon areas were declared in March, and a fifth may follow later this year.
“We need to remove the pressure,” he says.