The Government’s Fishy Business

Lawsuit Aims to Protect the Parrotfish, the Deep Sea Cleaning Crew
Recently, conservation groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect coral reefs by allowing the overfishing of parrotfish, a colorful fish species that spends its days munching algae off of the underwater, polyp-covered structures.

If you’ve ever owned a goldfish (and we don’t mean the crunchy, cracker kind), you know that the tanks they live in can quickly become covered in a mess of blue-green algae. The same is true for the giant aquariums of the sea—our world’s oceans. Instead of needing humans to freshen up stinky water and scrub fish bowls clean, oceans have parrotfish—their own personal cleaning crew (Side note: If you’ve ever had the pleasure of feeling warm sand between your toes, you can thank parrotfish for grinding up coral and excreting it into tiny rock bits, a.k.a. sand.).

In the marine world, a clean reef is a healthy reef. So without parrotfish, the entire reef system is in danger of an algae takeover that could smother reef-building corals. The already endangered Elkhorn and Staghorn coral are especially vulnerable to the blue-green blob.

Government officials maintain that allowing the targeted fishing of parrotfish, which are considered delicacies in many parts of the Caribbean, won’t jeopardize already imperiled corals or damage their critical habitat. Conservationists, led by Earthjustice, promptly challenged this assumption, which flies in the face of reputable science and of the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to harming corals, targeting parrotfish also threatens thousands of reef creatures like fish, sea turtles and lobsters that depend on the reef for habitat, as well as the millions of people who rely on them for their livelihoods. Since they’re so special (and not just because they can change shape, color and even their gender repeatedly), the plaintiffs are asking the fisheries service to reconsider its decision, this time taking into account the substantive importance of parrotfish to the reef ecosystem.

If the government chooses to sustainably manage parrotfish populations, it will help corals recover and become more resilient to the many other environmental stressors they face, such as agricultural pollution, overfishing and coral bleaching caused by climate change. Protecting the reef system also protects many other key interests like diving, tourism and, in the longer term, fishing.

The sheer scope of the parrotfish’s reach proves, once again, that when it comes to protecting our environment, we’re all in this fish bowl together.