From Despair to Repair: Protecting Parrotfish Can Help Bring Back Caribbean Coral Reefs


Most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear in 20 years if we don't restore the grazers that defend the corals from seaweed, according to a new report released today as the result of a three-year multi-institutional effort of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The report was led by Jeremy Jackson, professor emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and includes Ayana Johnson, a Scripps alumna now executive director at the Waitt Institute. Scripps alumna Katie Cramer, currently a visiting scholar at Scripps, served as a report editor.

In 1972, marine biologist Sylvia Earle said Caribbean coral reefs are, "almost devoid of conspicuous plants."  Today the opposite is true -- reefs are dominated by conspicuous seaweeds overgrowing, smothering, and poisoning Caribbean corals.  The new report shows a more than 50 percent decline in living corals throughout the Caribbean over the past half century. Given that Caribbean coral reefs generate more than $3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries, and that they are a major oceanic ecosystem, this must be reversed.

According to some estimates, climate change has already doomed coral reefs but the report shows that loss of parrotfishes and other grazers has been far more important than climate change for Caribbean reef destruction so far. While it is true that climate change poses an enormous risk for the future because of coral bleaching and more acidic oceans, the fact is reefs protected from overfishing and excessive coastal development and pollution are more resilient to these stresses.

“Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue their decline," said Jackson, scientific director at GCRMN and senior advisor on coral reefs at IUCN. “We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climate shifts.”

"The decline in corals began long before climate change began to affect reefs," said Terry Hughes, author of the 1994 study that predicted the current problems due to parrotfish removal.

The new report, "Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012," confirms that a unifying attribute of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs is vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish. These "resilient reefs" have strong local protections that are strictly enforced and live coral cover is more than double or triple the average coral cover of 14 percent seen throughout the Caribbean. Most notable of these are the Flower Garden Banks (55 percent live coral cover), Bermuda (35 percent), and Bonaire (35 percent).  All of these places prevent the fishing of parrotfish.

The Flower Gardens in the northern Gulf of Mexico are protected by their United States National Marine Sanctuary status, which prohibits the use of fish traps and parrot fishing. Bermuda has an even longer history of banning fish traps and spearfishing.  And Bonaire, with an entirely tourist-based economy that is reliant on the health of their reefs, has long restricted fishing. A brief breakdown in these protections resulted in an immediate decline in the health of Bonaire’s reefs, which triggered a quick restitution of protections. 

But reefs where parrotfish are unprotected have suffered tragic declines. These “failure reefs” are places where a variety of local human impacts have been allowed to run unchecked: not just by overfishing but also by overuse for recreation, excessive and destructive coastal development, and pollution.  The worst of these include Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“All too often, our fixation on the future threats of climate change has resulted in neglecting the things we can actually fix on a local basis,” said Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the IUCN Marine Programme and GCRMN chairman.  “We need to take a reef-by-reef, island-by-island, region-by-region approach to the local issues as we struggle to cope with the larger scale problem of curbing the use of fossil fuels.” 

Conserving Caribbean coral reefs can help resolve this problem.  Parrotfish are being destroyed despite their enormous economic and ecological value to the very survival of coral reefs and the goods and services provided by healthy reefs. The report strongly advocates banning all fish traps throughout the Caribbean, banning spearfishing (a practice that cannot be regulated at the level of fish species), and banning all other fisheries practices that harm parrotfish.

To achieve this goal, “we support the formation of a network of Caribbean nations working together for a unified response to the Caribbean coral reef crisis,” said Jerker Tamelander, head of the UNEP coral reef unit.

Some countries are already taking new positive action. Barbuda is moving to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins while also planning to set aside one third of their coastal waters as marine reserves.

“This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” said Johnson. The Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of their new management plan.

Materials for the media:

Executive summary of the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012

The full report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012

Eight-minute video From Despair to Repair about implications of the report with Jeremy Jackson and Scripps adjunct professor Nancy Knowlton

Hi-res photos of Caribbean coral reefs illustrating main points of the report

Contributions & Acknowledgements:

The report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 was written and edited by Prof. Jeremy B.C. Jackson, Mary K. Donovan, Katie L. Cramer, Vivian Y.Y. Lam with support from Carl Gustaf Lundin (IUCN), James Oliver (IUCN), Anne Caillaud (ICRI) and Sylvie Rockel (IUCN). Numerous other contributors generously assisted in helping to gather crucial metadata and providing references or photos.

Support for the GCRMN comes from the Global Marine and Polar Programme of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, United States State Department, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands, Summit Foundation, McQuown Foundation and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

About Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest, and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical, and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today on every continent and in every ocean. The institution has a staff of about 1,400 and annual expenditures of approximately $170 million from federal, state, and private sources. Scripps operates robotic networks and one of the largest U.S. academic fleets with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration. Birch Aquarium at Scripps serves as the interpretive center of the institution and showcases Scripps research and a diverse array of marine life through exhibits and programming for more than 425,000 visitors each year. Learn more at


The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) was established in 1994 to support the global call for action of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) to commit to increasing research and monitoring of coral reefs in order to provide the data needed to inform policy makers to sustain coral reefs and to strengthen management. Today, the GCRMN works through a global network of stakeholders to support the management and conservation of coral reefs. The work of GCRMN focuses on increasing the scientific understanding of the status and trends of coral reef ecosystems worldwide by making reef monitoring data publicly available, linking people and existing organizations, improving the communication among GCRMN members by providing information on network activities in order to strengthen the existing capacity across regions to manage coral reefs more efficiently while adapting to the effects of climate change.

About IUCN

IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN’s work focuses on valuing and conserving nature, ensuring effective and equitable governance of its use, and deploying nature-based solutions to global challenges in climate, food and development. IUCN supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world, and brings governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with more than 1,200 government and NGO Members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 45 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world.

About ICRI

The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) is a unique environmental partnership that brings together stakeholders with the objective of sustainable use and conservation of coral reefs for future generations. The many partners, including governments, international environmental and development agencies, scientific associations, the private sector and NGOs, are dedicated to designing the best strategies to conserve the world's coral reef resources.

About ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies undertakes world-best integrated research for sustainable use and management of coral reefs. Funded in July 2005 under the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence program this prestigious research centre is headquartered at James Cook University, in Townsville. The Centre is a partnership of James Cook University (JCU), the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), The Australian National University (ANU), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), The University of Queensland (UQ) and the University of Western Australia (UWA).

About UNEP

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established in 1972, is the voice for the environment within the United Nations system. UNEP acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment. To accomplish this, UNEP works with a wide range of partners, including United Nations entities, international organizations, national governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society.

About the Smithsonian Ocean Portal:

The Ocean Portal) is the virtual arm of the marine initiative of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.  Led by Editor-in-Chief Nancy Knowlton, the site receives over 100,000 visits per month and hosts blogs, slide shows, overviews, and videos.  All ocean topics are covered, ranging from ocean life and ecosystems to ocean inspired art, with a special focus on conservation and human connections.

Related Video: From Despair to Repair

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