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Will parrotfish save the coral reef ecosystem?

Coral reef ecosystem
Exploring The Aquarium, about a half mile paddle from our island

A new report on the health of Caribben coral reef ecosystems just came out, proclaiming the savior of the declining reefs to be none other than the ubiquitous parrotfish. This fish family is arguably the most numerous of the many fish species we encounter at Glover’s Reef. Some (but not near all) of the parrotfish species we regularly encounter while snorkeling near our island: Stoplight Parrotfish, Queen Parrotfish, Princess Parrotfish, and Midnight Parrotfish. Scientific parrotfish studies have taken place just off our shore by researchers based at the nearby Wilderness Conservation Society island, Middle Caye.

queen parrotfish
Queen Parrotfish spotted just off our shore

An international report released this week lays out a guardedly optimistic path to coral reef recovery — starting with conservation of an unlikely reef champion — the parrotfish. The report was produced by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Environment Program.

Coral reef health requires an ecological balance of corals and algae in which herbivory is a key element. Populations of parrotfish are a critical component of that herbivory, particularly since the decline of sea urchins in the early 1980s; the main causes of mortality of parrotfish are the use of fishing techniques such as spearfishing and, particularly, the use of fish traps.

Many people say that climate change has already doomed coral reefs. But the report shows that the loss of parrotfishes and other seaweed-eating grazers has been far more important than climate change for Caribbean reef destruction so far. While it is true that climate change poses an enormous risk for the future because of coral bleaching and more acidic oceans, the fact is that reefs protected from overfishing, excessive coastal development and pollution are more resilient to these stresses. Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue their decline. We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climatic shifts.

[Photos by Jason Lee (top) and Toby Chung (bottom)]