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.
At the fishing beach on Port Henderson Road, Portmore, fisherman of 30 years Floyd Brown told the Observer that the species fetches up to $500 per pound.
“The most fish in the sea is parrot, so if we can't catch it what we going to do? All the fish in the sea feed on coral so they would have to ban everything and that makes no sense!” he said.
“When unnuh tek parrotfish from people, how dem a go send dem pickney go school?” fisherwoman Olga Watt asked.
“Ah pure head an belly dem waan see?” added a fish vendor who was seated nearby but who declined giving her name. She was referring to the stereotypical image of severely malnourished children with swollen tummies and heads too large for their bodies.
She added: “Ah waan dem waan parrotfish fi mek more beach fi di tourist dem an we cyaan go deh,” making reference to the growing concern that locals are being barred from beaches meant for the public. The views were similar at the Forum fishing beach, also in Portmore.
“Parrot is the fish that we catch the most out of the sea. There is a wider variety of them than any other fish. Banning it will very seriously affect our livelihood,” Helen Blair-Brown told the Observer.
“If dem ban parrotfish, ah mash wi mash up,” a man passing by said loudly.
By contrast, fishers in Barbuda, which is about to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins and set aside one-third of its coastal waters as marine reserves, are reportedly in support of the restrictions.
According to a blog post on National Geographic titled 'To save coral reefs, start with Parrotfish', one of the report's 90 contributing scientists, Ayana Johnson of Waitt Institute's Blue Halo Initiative which is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of its new management plan, quoted fishers Larkin Webber and Josiah Deazle.
“I am worried about the taking of parrotfish because they clean the reef. Now people are specialising in catching parrotfish and that's a problem. Parrotfish should be protected,” Webber is reported to have said.
“Parrotfish is my favourite 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,” Deazle is reported to have said.
For it's part, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs) is in support of a parrotfish ban and uses the success stories of Special Fisheries Conservation Areas in Jamaica to illustrate the point.
“This important report clearly supports the decision by the Government of Jamaica taken to establish and support a network of fish sanctuaries (now officially called Special Fisheries
Conservation Areas). There are currently 14 fish sanctuaries in Jamaica, and many of them have been very successful at restoring populations of fish and lobsters, with one sanctuary achieving an amazing 540 per cent increase in fish biomass in just two years,” the centre said in a statement released to the media Monday.
Fish sanctuaries, the 5Cs said, provide an opportunity not only to safeguard the future of the island's coral reefs, but also ensure the survival of the region's beaches, tourism industry and food security.
“There is absolutely no reason why the early successes in the fish sanctuaries at Bluefield's Bay, Galleon in St Elizabeth and Oracabessa cannot be replicated and expanded around Jamaica, and for that matter in the wider Caribbean,” the centre said.
“This is not an ocean-hugging environmental issue,” Johnson said in her post.
“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.”