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Parrot Fish and the Move Towards Ecosystem Management

March 27, 2012

The past couple years in the United States we’ve seen a bit more attention given to ecosystem-based fisheries management, rather than traditional single-species fisheries management.  As the NCMC points out, ecosystem overfishing is really the next battle ground as the U.S. has mostly gotten stock overfishing under control.

Until now, the efforts that I’ve seen to end ecosystem overfishing relate to protecting forage fish.  For example, Pew’s Altantic Menhaden campaign. These fish, like all forage fish, are at the bottom of the fish food chain and so support the larger predatory species.  The thinking is that we should not manage these species according to MSY as these species are so important to having healthy stocks of other fish.  Rather, catch limits should be set at far more conservative levels.

Now this push to protect ecosystem-supporting species is being taken a step further.

The idea is that Parrot fish – as a ‘grazer’ fish – is also being subjected to ecosystem overfishing.  Parrot fish, as part of tropical reef complexes, matter because they eat algae that can smother corals (see the BBC here).  And reefs around the world are now threatened with excessive algal growth due to warming waters and increased nutrient pollution.

To push this idea, the Center for Biological Diversity, with the help of Earthjustice, has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). An interesting handle is the fact that some corals are listed under the ESA. The lawsuit asserts that:

…the National Marine Fisheries Service ignored science showing that parrotfish and other grazing fish play a key role in promoting the health of coral reefs; the government’s authorization of targeted fishing for parrotfish poses a risk to elkhorn and staghorn corals, protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Beyond the fact that the corals are endangered, it is important to protect these corals because they support other fish species.  Andrea Treece, an attorney with Earthjustice, explains:

Restoring healthy populations of elkhorn and staghorn coral is critical to restoring the health of Caribbean reefs as a whole…These corals provide shelter, nursery grounds, and hunting grounds for an incredible array of fish, lobsters, sea turtles and other species. Without better protection, we risk losing the entire reef community.

For some time now, NMFS has authorized the targeted fishing of parrotfish in the waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

All in all, this will be an interesting case to follow.

More here.

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