The parrotfish dilemma | Green

Among the most colourful marine species, parrotfish play a key role in keeping reefs and beaches healthy. They are also delicious, making fishing bans to protect them unpopular. Without these protections, learns Erline Andrews, they may be overfished into extinction

  • Parrotfish species bring vibrant colour to coral reefs — and help keep them healthy, too. Photo by Damsea/
  • Photo by Richard Whitcombe/

It’s the kind of scene you associate with opposition to oppressive regimes or police brutality. Thick black smoke rises above burning appliances and other chunks of debris dumped in the street by protesters. A crowd of onlookers stands by.

This dramatic event — captured in a 2017 photo taken in the city of Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic’s north coast — had an unassuming catalyst: a herbivorous fish that usually doesn’t get more than half a metre long, and spends much of its time eating algae or sleeping. Its fused, protruding teeth give it the appearance of having a beak, and earn it the common name parrotfish. (There are over ninety species, all belonging to the zoological Family Scaridae, and found in tropical oceans around the world.)

Five months before the protest, the DR government instituted a two-year ban on catching parrotfish, a popular delicacy in that country and other parts of the Caribbean. The fish have become the focus of environmental campaigns because of their key role in maintaining coral reefs in the region. Fishermen opposed the ban, and when state authorities confiscated five hundred pounds of illegally caught parrotfish in Puerto Plata, violence erupted.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be renewed,” Ruben Torres, a coral reef researcher and conservationist from the DR, says of the ban, which expires later this year. “The minister who made that resolution is out . . . so a lot of people think it’s not going to be renewed.”

The DR’s former environment minister, Francisco Domínguez, had a resolve in dealing with the issue that other leaders in the region seem to lack. “They can sell other species of fish,” Dominguez said in response to the protest. His words were reported in Dominican Today. “If we don’t do something now,” he went on, “we will soon have extinguished these fish that help the corals and the beaches so much.”

The parrotfish dilemma is the latest example of what can happen when an environmental concern conflicts with human economic interests. Last year, Jamaican authorities came close to a ban on catching parrotfish before abandoning the idea. They’re now considering other solutions, including a seasonal ban.

In the meantime, the dramatic degradation of Caribbean coral reefs that has been happening for the last four decades continues. A 2014 report from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network — the most comprehensive assessment of the state of reefs in the region — alarmed conservationists and contributed to a sense of urgency around the issue. The report noted coral reefs in the Caribbean have been reduced by more than fifty per cent since the 1970s.

Corals are animals themselves, and provide food and shelter to a wide variety of the oceans’ inhabitants. They act as a buffer protecting beaches from wave erosion, and in this way and through their own beauty support the tourism industry, which is important to many Caribbean countries. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in the Caribbean is the second largest in the world, and supports much biodiversity.

In addition to consuming algae that can poison the reefs and keep them from reproducing, parrotfish contribute to the creation and maintenance of beaches by chewing up bits of the corals’ exoskeleton and excreting sand particles.

“Healthy corals are increasingly rare on the intensively studied reefs of the Florida reef tract, US Virgin Islands, and Jamaica,” the GCRMN report said. “Concerns have mounted to the point that many NGOs have given up on Caribbean reefs and moved their attentions elsewhere.”

Those who oppose bans, and other policies that could negatively affect people who earn their living by fishing, point to other factors that have caused the denuding of Caribbean reefs, like climate change and hurricanes. But while the GCRMN report found that climate change was an impending threat, the evidence points to local human activities — heavy tourism and overfishing of the herbivores that eat reef-killing algae — as the main causes of the problem. These same phenomena make it difficult for the reefs to recover from hurricane damage, as they have been doing for centuries. Still, the political will to ban the catching of parrotfish may just not be there.

“It’s beyond urgent,” says Mark Tupper, a marine sciences professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, describing the state of Caribbean coral reefs. “I first started diving in the Caribbean in 1986 — thirty-three years ago. And sometimes I want to cry when I get in the water around here,” he continues. “It doesn’t look like it used to look at all. In fact, some of the reefs where I used to dive in Barbados back in the mid-80s, when I was doing my Master’s degree there, they don’t exist anymore. They’re literally gone, smashed into rubble, buried in sand. You wouldn’t even know there was ever a reef there.”

The GCRMN report urged governments in the region to “develop and implement adaptive legislation and regulations to ensure that threats to coral reefs are systematically addressed.” “Fishing employs a lot of people, but it’s a lower-income job,” says Tupper. “And most of the islands, even though they’re in the middle of the sea and they’ve got all this fishing going on . . . it’s a tiny fraction of their GDP,” says Tupper.

Authorities in Belize, Bonaire, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Turks and Caicos — where dive-tourism and therefore coral reefs play a bigger role in the economy — have taken steps to protect parrotfish, from outright bans to outlawing fishing techniques, like fish traps, that are more likely to catch herbivorous fish. Other countries in the region are at various stages of considering the problem.

“There are good fish alternatives that won’t destroy the reefs,” says Robert Steneck, professor of oceanography, marine biology, and marine policy at the University of Maine. “Throughout the Caribbean, the real cash cow are lobsters. By not fishing parrotfish, other things of greater value, like lobsters, would do better.”

There’s also the fact that the beaches that corals protect support the livelihoods of many people in the Caribbean. “Negril loses a metre of beach every year,” says Jamaican marine scientist Danielle Kitson. “Again, because of loss of healthy reefs.”

Finding alternatives to catching and eating parrotfish doesn’t only make economic sense, it’s inevitable, say researchers. The reason some fishermen have become dependent on parrotfish is that other species were overfished to the point where there are not enough of them for fishermen to earn a living.

Gregor Hodgson, founder and senior advisor at the Los Angeles–based global NGO Reef Check Foundation, offers a radical suggestion: that Caribbean fishermen be taught to rear tilapia via aquaculture. “They’re going to be making much more money from that,” he says. “Particularly in a place like Jamaica or Haiti, where there are so few fish left.”

A sustainability guide for Caribbean seafood

To eat or not to eat — choosing sustainable options

Back in our July/August 2014 issue, we ran the following sustainable seafood chart in our Save our sharks piece, offering tips for readers on which marine species you should try to avoid, for environmental or health reasons, and which you can feel free to enjoy. Many species are in trouble due to over-fishing, and are now endangered globally. Plus, many commercial fishing methods are destructive to marine habitats. So next time you’re ordering at a restaurant or shopping at your local supermarket or fish vendor, keep these lists in mind!

Compiled by Robin Ramdeen and Amy Deacon of Papa Bois Conservation

YES (sustainable)

As an invasive species, lionfish is the ultimate sustainable choice — and tasty too. It is typically harvested by spearfishing, so has no bycatch problem.

Flying fish
Fast-growing, short-lived, fast-reproducing, and tasty, these fish are fairly resilient to fishing pressure.

Dolphin/mahi mahi
Not to be confused with the mammal! This fish is fairly resistant to fishing pressure, due to early maturity and prolific spawning.

Relatively resilient to fishing pressure, as they grow fast and reproduce at a young age.

Matures fairly quickly and produces high numbers of offspring, making it resilient to fishing pressure.

Not strictly “seafood,” as they’re farmed in freshwater ponds. However, this means it has zero impact on the marine environment.

Grows and reproduces quickly.

THINK TWICE (not so sustainable)

Although naturally resilient to fishing pressure, they are overexploited in many parts of the Caribbean. Experts recommend a minimum length of 9 cm (from between eyes to beginning of tail).

Pelagic longliners overfish tuna, despite local methods tending to be more sustainable. Ask how it was caught before ordering — trolled hook and line is best.

Slow-moving and easy to harvest, but there are now international concerns about declines in numbers of wild conch. However, farmed conch is available on some islands — ask first.

Seem to be relatively resilient to fishing. However, stock assessments are scarce, so the status of the population is unknown.

Cro cro/Atlantic croaker
Populations thought to be healthy, but ask about fishing methods before selecting; seine-caught is a much better choice than trawler or gillnet-caught fish.

Check if caught by handline before ordering — if not, it was likely caught using coral-damaging fishing methods.

NO (avoid as far as possible)

Most have a long generation time, mature late, and have few offspring. This makes them very vulnerable to overfishing.

Shrimp tend to be caught by trawling, which means high levels of bycatch as well as causing damage to the marine environment.

Data deficient in South Atlantic. Usually fished using longline methods which have high levels of bycatch (including sharks and turtles).

These reef-fish are susceptible to fishing pressure, and tend to be over-exploited.

Often caught as bycatch in longline fisheries, and considered to be a threatened species.

These have been severely overfished in the Caribbean, putting the health of coral reef ecosystems in jeopardy.

A popular fish that is susceptible to overfishing.

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