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Parrot Fish: The Price of Consumption over Conservation

It’s not a well-kept secret, if a secret at all, to say that the coral reefs of Jamaica are in a very bad shape. The current situation of Jamaica’s reef tells a story of thick algae mats that smother and limit the growth of many organisms, particularly corals.

Corals and algae depend on a similar resource to grow – sunlight – and through photosynthesis the production of food and growth can occur. However, corals and algae are not similar in the speed in which they grow, with some corals growing as much as a few centimetres in dimension per year.

As such, Jamaica has seen a massive shift in reef dominance. Areas that were once dominated by beautiful and intriguing coral species in the early 70’s are now plagued with non-appealing green thickets of algae that limit a reef’s inherent growth.

No corals equal no growth.

The parrotfish is one of the last remaining defences against total algal take-over. Being a key herbivore, parrotfish are typically credited for using their beak-like mouths to scrape and consume algae that are usually associated with coral reefs. This scraping mechanism is also important, as the gathering of excess rubble in their stomachs is broken down and churned out as sand particles.

Parrotfish are therefore credited with contributing to sand creation and ultimately beach sand creation. It has been proved that an adult parrotfish has the ability to create 800pounds of sand in a year.

At the same time, however, this same parrotfish is one of the most sought after commercial fish in Jamaica. Many locals highlight it as their personal favourite fish to consume. That demand has led to fishermen being encouraged to provide a continuous supply of the parrotfish, even catching them at the juvenile stages. This has proven to be further deleterious for coral reefs as added human pressures have drastically decreased the population of adult parrotfish, leading to lowered chances of the reefs reviving from algal domination.

The resulting dilemma is that the parrotfish is seen not only as an important resource to the health and growth of coral reef systems but also as an important resource for revenue generation for many communities across the island. It is also an important variable that will determine the long term impacts on Jamaica’s tourism sector and other industries that benefit from Eco-Tourism and marine services.

It is against this background that The UWI, Mona Campus and Sandals Resorts International have entered into a partnership agreement aimed at producing “convincing data” to support calls for parrotfish management systems in the island.

The first stage of research will involve scoping the sites that will become permanent study sites. The intention is to deploy unmanned cameras, and also carry out parrotfish in-water surveys and reef assessments. A four-man UWI team, led by marine biologist Dr. Dayne Buddo, Assistant Director at The UWI's Centre for Marine Sciences, has already done two preliminary dives in the Negril and Whitehouse regions.

 The UWI will further conduct island wide in-water surveys to retrieve information on the diversity, density, abundance and biomass of the parrotfish species. The team will also visit fishing beaches to study the characteristics of the parrotfish being caught and will also conduct a socioeconomic assessment for fishing communities, many of which depend on the parrotfish to sustain their livelihoods.

This research intends to highlight the actual relationship between the present parrotfish species fish stock and the effects of fishing of the species in Jamaica. The data to be collated is Jamaica’s first pool of information to compare to works by Bozec (2016) that identified the specific size range of parrotfish to be fished without ecological collapse.

Furthermore, the research intends to highlight the true economic value of parrotfish to Jamaica. Using data collected from the direct and indirect beneficiaries of marine services and equating this to the market value of parrotfish per pound, a true value of parrotfish to the locals of Jamaica will be gathered to understand whether it is more costly, in Jamaican dollars, to continuously fish and sell parrotfish on the local market as a food commodity, or conserve the fish and reap the per pound per dollar benefit through increased means of Eco-Tourism and Ecological services the fish provides.

The Sandals Resorts International has kindly contributed to the implementation of the research project by providing accommodation and diving facilities at their resorts for the research team. In addition, they have provided cash sponsorship, which helps to offset transportation for the team, as the purchase of some underwater equipment.

The findings of the study will be used to guide the Government of Jamaica to appropriately manage the species, to ensure the long-term recovery and sustainability of the species in Jamaica.

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