If you have ever enjoyed a stroll on the beach or snorkeled over the coral reefs, you can thank the parrotfish.
These colorful creatures create much of the sand on the Caribbean’s idyllic shores and keep the brilliant reefs healthy. In an intricate underwater partnership, parrotfish feed on algae that otherwise smother reefs. They also clear the way for corals to re-grow by chewing off tiny bits of coral skeleton, which are then excreted as sand. One parrotfish can create up to 200 pounds of sand each year.
Yet these important reef dwellers — critical to the survival of endangered corals — are plummeting to dangerously low population levels. People are fishing for them faster than they can reproduce.
And parrotfish are not the only fish in trouble. Many other Caribbean species, including red and Nassau grouper, are imperiled. Others, such as queen conch and vermilion snapper, are at risk of depletion.
Fortunately, the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policies in U.S. Virgin Island waters, is considering new rules to place limits on catch of 35 species. Public hearings are set for 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on July 20 at the Buccaneer Hotel in St. Croix and July 21 at the Windward Passage Holiday Inn on St. Thomas. A final vote could come later this year.
Fishery managers must act decisively to help restore fish species to healthy levels for the sake of the ocean ecosystem and future fishing and tourism opportunities. Decades of overfishing in the Caribbean threaten to destroy a paradise that draws millions of tourists and powers the economy.
Studies already have linked the staggering decline of coral reefs to overfishing, and unsustainable fishing rates are the most likely cause of the loss of large predator fish, such as Nassau grouper. We must ensure we are not catching fish faster than they can replenish themselves, and that means setting sustainable fishing levels.
This isn’t the first time fishery managers have acted to end overfishing. For instance, in 1990, they set restrictions on some fishing gear and prohibited the catch of some fish. And in 2005, fishing limits for still other species were enacted but not made binding.
The current proposal is a stronger plan to halt overfishing. It’s a more cautious approach that also carries more effective tools to ensure the plan works and is enforced. It is based on recommendations from government scientists and the Council’s science advisory panel. And Caribbean islands will get their own individual limits and rules. That means what happens in Puerto Rico won’t impact fishermen in St. Croix.
The proposed rules may reduce catches between 10 and 25 percent, depending on the species. The cuts aren’t expected to significantly harm the fishing industry, although individual fishermen may feel some economic impacts. Those affected, however, may be able to supplement their income through legislation that is gaining steam in the U.S. Congress.
About 60 lawmakers, including V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, are pushing the Coastal Jobs Creation Act — $80 million over five years to help fishermen while depleted fish populations are restored. The measure would create jobs for fishermen to perform research with scientists, remove marine debris, revitalize ports and participate in projects to restore fish habitat.
Caribbean waters are teeming with life and it benefits everyone to safeguard the jewels of this region. If we are responsible stewards, we will be rewarded with bountiful fish and a flourishing economy for years to come.
And enough parrotfish can continue their delicate dance that makes Caribbean reefs and beaches some of the most stunning places in the world.
Sera Harold Drevenak grew up in St. Croix as an avid angler and diver. She is a senior policy analyst with the Pew Environment Group and lives in North Carolina. Paul Chakroff is executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association and member of the board of the Virgin Islands Conservation Society.