The flamboyant, algae-eating, sand-pooping, Parrotfish is the most important fish on Caribbean coral reefs. This World Fisheries Day, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is giving them a big shout-out, and sharing all the wonderful ways they make coral reefs – and our lives – better.

Photo: S. Bysshe - Queen parrotfish eating algae
  1. Parrotfish eat algae and dead coral*.  They spend up to 90% of their day nibbling. In other words, they clean the reef. This is important because most of the reefs in the Caribbean (and elsewhere across the tropics) are being smothered by algae because there are not enough parrotfish and other herbivores out there grazing.
     
  2. After all that eating, get this: They poop fine white sand – lots of it! Each parrotfish produces up to 320 kilograms (700 pounds) of sand each year. (A delightful musical cartoon explaining this process can be found here).
     
  3. They have delightfully garish fashion sense. Parrotfish are a big part of what makes scuba diving so colorful. Each species has a different color scheme, and they change their “outfits” as they go from babies, to adolescents, to adults.
     
  4. Parrotfish can open our minds about the spectrum of sexual orientations. They are proof that heterosexual monogamy is not nature’s status quo. Parrotfish mate in harems and are sequential hermaphrodites, with many changing from female to male as they age. The largest fish (which are unfortunately also the ones most targeted by spearfishing) are male. So fishing that targets the biggest fish takes the males and makes it hard for the species to reproduce.
Photo: A.E. Johnson - Stoplight parrotfish dead in a gill net.

So, what’s threatening parrotfish? Us. Humans. We are their primary predators. We are overfishing them with nets, fish traps and spearguns.

Their numbers are so depleted, and algae levels are so high, that they cannot be fished sustainably right now anywhere in the Caribbean. These flamboyant, algae-eating, sand-pooping fish need to be left in the water. And when they are left to chomp away, they do a brilliant job. A massive new report concludes that reefs where parrotfish were abundant in the 1980s are the reefs that are healthy now.

The #1 thing we can do to ensure the health of coral reefs is to protect parrotfish.

The island of Barbuda has recently done just that. The local government passed a law in August that completely protects parrotfish. It is now illegal to catch, buy, sell, or possess parrotfish. Furthermore, 33% of the coastal area is now protected in marine reserves, and use of nets on the reefs is prohibited, among other necessary and progressive measures.

All this occurred as part of the Blue Halo Initiative, a partnership between the Waitt Institute and the local government to support sustainable fishing and ocean zoning. Barbuda is a tiny island, but it has set a new standard for ocean management. And that gold standard must quickly become the new status quo.

Photo: A.E. Johnson - Parrotfish and other species caught by spearfishing

Do not despair. Though it will take concerted effort, we can save the Caribbean’s coral reefs. And next time you see a healthy reef, stroll down a fluffy white sand beach, or have a colorful scuba dive, thank a parrotfish.

For more information about parrotfish, check out this handy fact sheet.

- This is a guest blog from Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, PhD Executive Director, Waitt Institute. This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

*Parrotfish do sometimes eat a bit of live coral, but the harm done to live coral is far outweighed by the benefits they bring.

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