Coral reef fishers working off the coast of Mahé, Seychelles (photo credit: AJ Woodhead; permission for the photo to be used was given by the fishers).

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Tropical coral reefs around the world are changing, which can affect the benefits people get from the sea. But how are these benefits changing, and who will be most affected?

People working on reefs are most likely to witness changes to these benefits first-hand. We interviewed 41 coral reef fishers from Seychelles, a tropical island archipelago, where heatwaves have been changing coral reefs for over 20 years. We wanted to know if fishers had perceived changes to four reef associated benefits: the habitat that reefs provide for other species; the fish caught to eat or sell; the physical reef barrier that protects the shore; and the reef associated places used for relaxation. To find out which fishers are perceiving what, we collected information on their socio-economic, demographic, and fishing situations. Finally, we sought to understand which perceived changes matter most and why.

Coral reef fishers in Seychelles: Depiction of a small-scale fisher at the 2019 Creole Festival (left); Fisher repairing a fish trap at sea (centre); Typical trap catch of reef associated fish species (right) (photo credit: A.J. Woodhead; permission for the photo to be used was given by the fisher).

We found that fishers had perceived all the benefits associated with reefs to be changing. This is significant. Despite climate impacts being well-documented on reefs, few studies have recorded fishers’ perceptions of change across multiple benefits. Descriptions of change were diverse, incorporating ecological and social dynamics. This included fishers’ own behaviour (e.g. fishing further out), which had un-intended consequences in other aspects of their lives (e.g. less family time).

Fishers who engaged more with reefs perceived more changes in the benefits associated with reefs. Overall, perceived changes in the provision of habitat were of highest importance. However, fishers from smaller islands or with fewer alternatives to fishing tended to perceive changes in benefits associated with catching fish as more important.

These findings provide a basis for managers and fishers to work together to prevent further changes in reef associated benefits. The diversity in perceived changes, and wide-reaching consequences in fishers’ lives, demand solutions that extend beyond reef ecosystems. Approaches that centre on fishers’ wellbeing could help to identify and minimize the wider effects of changes to reef associated benefits.