Writer: Tosheena Robinson-Blair, BSc, MSc
Often overlooked in favor of its more popular cousins, snappers and groupers, parrotfish harvesting is on the rise due to its taste, consumers’ requests and largely because it ends up on hooks, in nets and traps when fishermen troll for other species. New research suggests its growing demand is likely to continue, spelling big trouble for the local coral reefs, an ecosystemalready in serious decline.
Dubbed “nature’s lawnmowers,” parrotfish spend most of their day binging on algae thereby helping coral reef grow in a delicate balancing act. In places where the species were overfished, reefs have suffered tragic declines in coral numbers. In her latest research, marine scientist and educator Dr. Karlisa Callwood sought to understand the shift in demand for parrotfish, and gauge whether fishermen understood the importance of the species to the reef system and the need to conserve the resource. She surveyed 164 fishermen on 12 islands throughout The Bahamas.
“Those who earn more than 90 percent of their income from fishing are most likely to fish for these species every day. Those fishers who acknowledge harvesting parrotfish identified at least 10 species they typically collect. They also indicated that each trip, they harvest an average of six individuals, ranging in size fromeightto 30 inches,” said Dr Callwood, who serves as director of the Perry Institute of Marine Science’s(PIMS) Community Conservation Education & Action Program. The 10 species identified includes species considered to be amongst the most important reef grazers in The Bahamas.
“Only fishers from New Providence, Abaco, Andros, Mayaguana, and Eleuthera seem to be targeting these species specifically. Responses indicate, however, that fishers from every island surveyed do harvest parrotfish,” said the U.S. Virgin Islands native who holds a doctoral degree in ecosystem science and policy with a focus on interdisciplinary studies of fisheries management, conservation and sustainability.
“Some fishers collect the fish because they will take anything they catch; some because they are using it to help feed theirfamilies; others because it is specifically being requested; and some just because they like to eat it. Furthermore, though a large percentage of fishers are indicating that their harvest of parrotfish is bycatch, it is more likely that harvest of the species is more opportunistic.”
The latter isn’t surprising since nearly 75 percent of the respondents worked multiple jobs to help support their families. Although there is limited data available to help place a figure on the amount currently being harvested, fishermen say requests for the species are increasing.
“This is due in large part to immigrants from other countries, particularly Jamaica and Haiti, where
parrotfish is a popular meal. Additionally, many fishers have admitted that when they do sell parrotfish, they are often times selling it as grouper, especially to restaurants,”Dr Callwood explained. Fish fraud is a lucrative business. Successfully pass parrotfish off as grouper, and sellers could get as much as $20 per pound from restaurants.
Still, fishermen maintained they understood theimportance of parrotfish in the marine environment. The research indicates most possess “basic knowledge” in this area. Less than 10 percent however, demonstrated “complete” understanding of parrotfish ecosystem functions within reef habitats. According to Dr Callwood, it highlights the need for an educational component to management and conservation efforts.
“Nearly 90 percent of responders believe fisheries resources should be managed. Seventy percent think they are currently managed poorly, citing limited and inconsistent enforcement as a key issue. In addition to lack of enforcement, fishermen also identified illegal fishing, primarily fishing out of season and poaching by foreigners, and a lack of education as the three greatest challenges to managing marine resources,” Dr Callwood reported.
“While fishers recognize that humans, and ultimately fishing, are big threats to parrotfish, most do not believe that harvesting them has an impact on their populations. The fishers’ perception is that there simply aren’t many people in The Bahamas collecting parrotfish and that the population is so plentiful that even if there were, their numbers would not be affected. Yet, more than 50 percent of those surveyed for this project are currently harvesting parrotfish species.”
With awareness increasing as to the importance of parrotfish, nations such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Barbuda and Turks and Caicos have adopted management strategiesfor the species. If a complete ban on harvesting parrotfish is not practical, Dr Callwood’s research recommends the introduction of new regulations.
“Policy makers may also want to consider strategies to curb market fraud, which may discourage some fishers from passing off parrotfish as grouper or other high value species, thereby making parrotfish less enticing to catch and the parrotfish market less viable. A second implication is that management of this fishery may need to be location specific.” While they are willing to support management strategies, the feedback from fishermen indicates they will only do so with adequate enforcement. Furthermore, they want to see more protected areas, especially in those places that support nurseries for important species.
Locations often cited as potential no-take areas include Hog Cay Bank, the Jumentos, Cay Lobos, Chub Cay, and the Berry Islands.