Should there be a ban on the consuption of Parrotfish?

JAMAICANS love parrotfish. Steamed, fried or roasted, the brightly coloured sea creature is a common feature on many a dinner plate. It’s also a favourite at the beach and at roadside eateries on the weekend.

But the enjoyment could soon come to an end as local and international groups are lobbying for a parrotfish ban. The arguments are that: 1) the fish clean coral reefs by eating the algae that grows on them, and 2) they excrete sand, which is one way of countering beach erosion.

Lenbert Williams, director of projects with the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society, told the Jamaica Observer Monday that the parrotfish should be declared an endangered species in order to solve both problems or at least stem the tide of degradation.

“A mature parrotfish can weigh up to 40 lbs and in its lifetime it generates about 800 lbs of sand.

So every time you eat a parrotfish you are denying the beach of 800 lbs of sand,” he said. He explained that the parrotfish population is at risk from overfishing, as well as from the predatory lionfish. In addition to preserving them, he said, complementary measures such as replanting corals and sea grass beds were necessary.

Just last week, a study released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation, recommended that parrotfish be listed as a specially protected species under the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW Protocol).

Its focus was coral reef preservation, rather than sand production, although the two are intrinsically related.

The study, titled ‘Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012’, is the result of three years of work by 90 experts from the IUCN as well as the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the United Nations Environment Programme.

It has found that Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50 per cent since the 1970s and may disappear in the next 20 years as a direct result of the loss of parrotfish and sea urchin — the area’s two main grazers — and not primarily as a result of climate change, as is widely believed.

“The loss of these species breaks the delicate balance of coral ecosystems and allows algae, on which they feed, to smother the reefs,” the report says.

Jeremy Jackson, lead author of the report and IUCN’s senior advisor on coral reefs, said: “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 climate shifts.”

The study also shows that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that “have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing”. These include the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire.

The proposal to ban or restrict the catching of parrotfish seems logical enough to scientists, but it’s a much harder sell for the people who earn a living catching and selling it. They argue that parrot and snapper are the most abundant fish at sea and that any sort of restriction would severely hurt their ability to earn.

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