Here in Antigua we have a new government and new Ministers responsible for the Environment and Fisheries. I am hoping that these new representatives will listen to reason and do something about protecting our reefs. There have been several great articles recently about the state of Caribbean coral reefs and what we need to do to stop them and all the species they house from disappearing. Ayana Johnson from our Barbuda Blue Halo project wrote a great piece on the National Geographic site.
“Coral reefs are very complex ecosystems, but luckily managing them sustainably is not. Simply don’t catch fish faster than they reproduce, don’t damage the corals or pollute the water, and protect some areas as marine reserves.
That’s easier said than done, and it’s not news. What is new is that an exhaustive, Caribbean-wide analysis shows that the #1 thing we can do to ensure the health of coral reefs is to protect parrotfish.
Parrotfish are colorful and voracious herbivores that spend up to 90% of their day eating algae off of coral reefs with. And they poop sand (up to 200 pounds of it per year!) keeping beaches beachy, as this humorous video explains.
However, parrotfish have been overfished and Caribbean reefs have gotten increasingly furry with algae over the past for decade, resulting in a far less pretty picture, and a far less productive and resilient ecosystem.
The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network of IUCN has just released a report by 90 experts* that analyzed a massive amount of data – 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970! –including much that has never been analyzed and published before. You can find the report and executive summary here, and a video explanation here, but here’s my distillation:
- Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s.
- Most Caribbean reefs have been dominated by algae since the mid 1990s. This shift from coral to algal dominance was initiated by the combination the mass die off of sea urchins (the other key herbivore) and the overfishing of parrotfish.
- The healthiest Caribbean reefs are those that still have robust parrotfish populations, such as Bermuda and Bonaire, which restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing.
- Overfishing is the primary factor determining current Caribbean coral health, not climate change or pollution.
This may sound hopeless, but it’s far from it! Protecting parrotfish and urchins can help restore coral reefs, and unlike addressing climate change, can be done locally and does not require global coordination and cooperation. Algae hinder the growth of coral, so making sure there are plenty of herbivores grazing the reefs can help coral recover.
The report recommends:
- Protecting parrotfish as completely as possible via fisheries laws and regulations;
- Monitoring and enforcing these restrictions, while working with local communities to minimize impact on fishing livelihoods;
- Listing parrotfish as a specially protected species under the SPAW Protocol; and
- Providing education on the importance and the benefits of these measures to communities and stakeholders.
Or in the words of elder Barbudan fishers:
- Larkin Webber: “I am worried about the taking of parrotfish because they clean the reef. Now people are specializing in catching parrotfish and that’s a problem. Parrotfish should be protected.” (For more wisdom from Larkin, see this previous blog post.)
- Josiah Deazle: “Parrotfish is my favorite fish to eat because I have no teeth anymore. How I’m going to eat boney fish? … But catch of parrotfish should be banned. People are taking so much of them the reef is gonna die.” (For more from Josiah, see this previous blog post.)
In sum, overfishing is what caused Caribbean coral reefs to fall apart, not climate change. So local management of fishing, and protection of parrotfish in particular, matters immensely and can help save reefs.
This comprehensive report provides further support for banning catch of parrotfish altogether, or at least restricting the use of the fish traps (See “Solution: Escape Gaps for Fish Traps”), spearguns, and gill nets that target them as several locations have done, and for the ban drafted by the local government of Barbuda as part of the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.
This is not an ocean hugging environmental issue, Caribbean reefs generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries. This is a problem we can solve, to great benefit of ecosystems and economies. Here’s to hoping 2014 continues to be a year of strong action for ocean conservation, not just for establishing marine reserves, but also for saving parrotfish and therefore Caribbean reefs.
*Note: For more positive stories about solutions for ocean conservation see the Smithsonian Ocean Portal, State Department’s “ocean success stories,” MOS Foundation, and follow #oceanoptimism on Twitter.
*Disclosure: Dr. Jeremy Jackson, the report’s lead author was my PhD advisor, and I am one of the 90 contributing scientists. Kudos to Dr. Jackson for his herculean effort coordinating this project over the last three years.”
Here is another one taken from OutsideOnline:
“Coral reefs in the Caribbean are in a bad way, but hope could arrive in a small, colorful package—the parrotfish.
New research suggests that protecting the parrotfish could also help save coral populations, which have declined precipitously over the past four decades. Warming oceans have caused large algae blooms that can deprive reefs of the light they need to survive. That’s where the parrotfish come in. The fish eat the algae, keeping it in check before it overruns the reef. Balance to the ecosystem is (theoretically) restored.
Sounds simple, right? Well, we still have to deal with the invasive pathogens, tourism, overfishing, pollution, and now global warming that plague the Caribbean. Crucially, the new study doesn’t deny the situation is bleak. Rather, it outlines steps—including stricter local fishing policies—we can take to limit the damage.
“Overemphasis on climate change … provides an excuse for managers and governments not to make the hard decisions required to stop overfishing, coastal pollution, and unsustainable development,” the authors write in their recommendations for management.”
I remember sitting on a panel speaking about eco issues here in Antigua on a local station Observer Radio. On the panel that day the Chied Environmental Officer was saying that while she had no influence on fish species, that if she did the one species in Antigua and Barbuda that she would protect would be the parrotfish also known locally as “Chub” fish. Ask your friendly politician to do more to protect the reefs by making parrotfish a protected species.