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Colombian Caribbean Island of Providencia to Protect Parrotfish to Save  Coral Reefs

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Fishermen with their catch of Providencia's parrotfish

To coincide with World Oceans Day 2018, conservation leaders on Colombia’s Providencia Island in the Caribbean are launching a campaign to protect threatened parrotfish to save its coral reefs and beaches.

Parrotfish play a critical role in preserving coral reefs: they eat the harmful microalgae which would otherwise cover and smother the corals. As they graze, parrotfish also break down rocks and dead coral and excrete fine sand, replenishing the beaches and atolls. Without parrotfish, coral reefs will die.

Providencia Island is home to a large number of different parrotfish species, many of which are rarely found in other Caribbean locations, but the parrotfish are under threat. As stocks of snapper and other fish species have declined, local fishermen have limited access to deep water fishing grounds and are catching parrotfish instead. Studies show that the last ten years have seen a rapid decline in parrotfish populations, with four poaching vessels caught between 2012 and 2016 found to contain 10 tons of parrotfish between them. 

Working with local NGO Fundación Providencia, US-based conservation organisation Seacology is funding an educational campaign on Providencia Island to raise awareness of the importance of parrotfish for healthy reef conservation which is essential to the long-term sustainability of the island’s fisheries – healthy reefs provide essential breeding grounds for many important fish species

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Parrotfish consume the algae which can overwhelm and suffocate coral (Photo: Silke Baron)

This campaign is part of a wider initiative supporting CORALINA (the National Maritime Protection Agency) to introduce a total ban on catching parrotfish. Many fishers have already agreed to the ban but others will only consent if they can find other means of income. Having the fishing community 'buy-in' to the campaign through the funding of alternative livelihoods - such as handicrafts and eco-tourism lodges - is essential for sustainable conservation.

'Our role is to get the fishing community to buy into it,' said June Marie Mow Robinson, Director, Fundación Providencia. 'We think compliance is much easier than enforcement. We know we need both, but if we have more compliance than enforcement, we will be successful.'

As part of Fundación Providencia’s ongoing work to support a ban on catching parrotfish, the joint project will also reach out to school children, and the tourism and restaurant operators where many of the parrotfish are sold.

The worldwide decline of coral reefs has made international headlines, but with much of the media's attention focused on the Great Barrier Reef, the impact of overfishing, coastal pollution and tourism on Carribean reefs has been somewhat overlooked. A 2014 study by the IUCN found that Caribbean reefs had lost about five-sixths of their coral cover and could completely die out within two decades if meaningful action is not taken. The report cited the decline of grazing species like parrotfish as a primary cause.

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A female stoplight parrotfish (Photo: Carl Salonen/creatingimagery.com)

'We believe Isla Providencia is at the forefront of what will become an international movement to protect parrotfish and so protect coral reefs,' said Duane Silverstein, executive director, Seacology.

Providencia remains a beacon of hope for coral reefs in the region. 'People come to this island looking for treasure but I always tell them that our treasure is beneath the waters, it’s our reefs,' said Mow Robinson. 'Parrotfish are the best guardians we have to keep our reefs clean so we can conserve the habitat for present and future generations.'

To support the program, Seacology began a crowdfunding campaign on Earth Day; it will run to 22 June. The campaign, which can be found at www.seacology.org/parrotfish, has already surpassed the project’s $16,000 goal. Any money raised over the goal will be used to expand Seacology’s support of the project.

 

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