Humans may be drawn to colorful Caribbean corals for their beauty, but marine animals see much more: places to build homes, breed, and find food.
Corals reefs are special ecosystems, intricate labyrinths of interdependence with a dizzying variety of ocean life. For example, parrotfish feed on algae that, left unchecked, would smother reefs. They also clear the way for new coral growth by chewing off tiny bits of coral skeleton, which the fish then excrete as sand. One parrotfish can create up to 200 pounds of sand each year.
With such complexity, it makes sense to consider the entire ecosystem—rather than just a single species at a time—when making rules for conservation and fishing.
Such broader consideration is at the heart of plans under consideration by the Caribbean Fishery Management Council to improve management of ocean resources in federal waters in the U.S. Caribbean. These new island-based fishery management plans would set rules for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands tailored to the biodiversity, culture, and other characteristics of each location’s fishery, and help ensure the sustainable catch of some popular species.
The public can learn more and provide input on the plans at public hearings Dec. 3-6 in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Times and locations are soon to be announced on the council’s website
Right now, the council sets most of its fishing rules by treating Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as a single unit. But that doesn’t consider the varied ecosystems or cultural differences of each community.
For example, visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands can dine on conch and fried parrotfish with a johnnycake flatbread in St. Croix. Or, in St. Thomas, they can try queen triggerfish, also known as “ol’ wife” for its rough skin—which, back in the day, people used to clean pots and pans. Hop over to Puerto Rico, and the fishermen on the west coast of that island are hauling in deep-water snappers that are rarely caught in the Virgin Islands.
Three islands located near one another, each with a distinct seafood culture. To keep fishing of a particular species sustainable, plans may call for different catch limits for that species among the different islands. A plan might set a higher catch limit where the fish is the most important to the human population and/or is more abundant.
And that’s just one example of the value of managing fisheries based on the marine ecosystem along with the habits, culture, and seafood preferences of each location’s population.
Among other factors, the plans would consider fishers’ catch and the local demand for each species and would account for natural and human influences and the different strains that each puts on ecosystems.
The Pew Charitable Trusts hopes that the plans will prioritize protection of fish spawning habitat. Some species return to the same spots to spawn for generations, so protecting these special places boosts healthy fish populations and improves the recovery chances for declining ocean species. In some places where fishing is prohibited during spawning seasons, fish have grown larger and more numerous, and their populations have expanded over a wider area, helping to replenish nearby fishing grounds. Fish in locations where fishing has temporarily stopped produce greater numbers of eggs than do those in other areas. The resulting abundance attracts additional species, so food webs grow more robust.
Island-based fishery management plans also should include proactive measures to promote sustainable catch of some species that aren’t regulated, including dolphinfish (mahi-mahi)—one of the Caribbean’s most popular catches. In St. Croix, it’s the third most caught fish, and in Puerto Rico, where the catch is highest, it’s the sixth most popular target for commercial vessels and No. 1 for recreational fishers.
If adopted, the new plans probably would maintain some current rules, such as parrotfish catch limits across the U.S. Caribbean and a prohibition on harvesting all coral species under federal jurisdiction or engaging in activities that can damage corals, such as anchoring or using certain kinds of fishing gear.
The fishery council will consider input from the public hearings before tentatively voting on the plans during its last meeting of the year in mid-December.
If the council adopts the plans, they will mark an important step toward a more comprehensive approach to fisheries management that will be better for ocean ecosystems and for the people who rely on them.
Yasmin Velez-Sanchez is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean conservation work in the U.S. Caribbean, and Holly Binns is a director with Pew’s efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. South Atlantic Ocean, and the U.S. Caribbean.