The Fish That Lays the Golden Egg

In 2014, Dominican photographer José Alejando Álvarez contacted me to dive at Puntacana Resort & Club. He was interested in two rainbow parrotfish that were rumored to inhabit our coral reef. “I want to photograph them. They have disappeared in the rest of the country.”

Photo José Alejando Álvarez

Parrotfish, including rainbow parrotfish, are brilliantly colored fish, painted with vibrant colors and attract snorkelers, divers, and underwater photographers. Recently, scientists have begun to appreciate the important role parrotfish play in the overall health of coral reefs. As herbivores, they consume algae from the reef, protecting the corals from intrusive algae growth. Parrotfish have a series of tightly packed front teeth (like the beak of parrot) that they use to grind up pieces of rock and coral while they consume algae. Like a cow, parrotfish are grazers, but grazers of the sea. They clean algae from the reef, to the benefit of corals.

More importantly to the tourism industry, parrotfish are sand producing machines that literally poop out much of the white sand that adorns Caribbean beaches. Their excrement, made up of digested rock and coral, is white sand. In fact, scientists estimate that one parrotfish can produce up to 200 pounds of white sand a year. Considering Caribbean coral reefs generate an estimated $3 billion dollars a year in tourism and fisheries, the parrotfish is worth its weight in gold to the Caribbean economy.

Photo José Alejando Álvarez

In the Dominican Republic, however, parrotfish are scarcer by the day. Small-scale but intensive spearfishing has drastically reduced the population of reef species more traditionally consumed by humans, such as group and red snapper. As the traditional fishing options have diminished, fishermen have replaced more valuable species with less economically valuable species, such as parrotfish. This tendency, termed “fishing down the food web,” means that parrotfish, despite their ecological importance to the reef, are considered a low value species. Since they fetch relatively low prices on the local market, fishermen target parrotfish more intensively to get greater volume.

Photo Susanne Leib

Alarmingly, recent studies from Punta Cana, the most important tourist destination in the Dominican Republic, have shown that close to 60% of the local catch is parrotfish. This signals a significant pressure on a key species that contributes an invaluable services (including sand) to the tourism industry.

In 2014, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) published the most comprehensive study of Caribbean coral reefs in history: “The Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1972-2012.” Amongst the primary conclusions of the report was to demonstrate a clear link between healthy reefs and robust populations of parrotfish. The report made several recommendations for the Caribbean. 1. Eliminate unregulated spearfishing. 2. Create no-take fishing reserves. 3. Establish fishing bans for key herbivorous reef species, such as parrotfish.

In June 2017, the Dominican Ministry of Environment declared a fishing ban on the capture of several species, including sharks, stingrays, Long-spine urchins (another herbivorous algae grazer) and parrotfish. This ban is historic for the protection and conservation of Dominican seas and reefs. The signing was accompanied by businessman Richard Branson.

Photo Ritmo Social

Obviously, the implementation of such an extensive ban is going to be difficult. Compliance with existing fishing restrictions and seasons, such as lobster, conch, and crab, are regularly violated throughout the country. The ineffectiveness of CODOPESCA, the entity formally charged with protecting fisheries, is a constant source of frustration for environmental advocates. The Ministry of Environment, with limited resources and personnel, simply does not have the manpower to implement existing fishing laws, much less new ones.

However, this new regulation is still significant, even if it represents a symbolic act, since it signals a newfound coherency in the policies of the Ministry of Environment. This law demonstrates that the Dominican Republic is forming its policy based on international best practices, sound science and the recommendations of international and national experts. Additionally, it prioritizes a species with a high ecological and economic value, particularly to the tourism industry.

Undoubtedly, the success of this new law will depend more on the commitment and support of Dominican society, than the capacity of the Ministry of Environment to enforce it. The public and private sectors, environmental and community groups, associations and unions, and all Dominican citizens will determine the success of the new law.

For example, ASONAHORES, the association that represents most restaurants, hotels, and tourism activities in the country, should publicly commit all its members to respect all national fishing regulations without exception. Similarly, supermarkets and commercial fish vendors should commit themselves to compliance with fishing restrictions. For years, restaurants, hotels and vendors have used the excuse of frozen products and imported goods as a cover for serving banned species and violating the law. The tourism industry should be the first group to support parrotfish for its obvious contributions to the industry.

The private sector can also provide leadership in integrating fishermen into different industries as an alternative to unsustainable practices, like spearfishing. The tourism industry has a unique position for providing jobs as boat captains, tour guides, marine maintenance staff and other jobs for former fishermen and their families.

Most important, the public should become educated on what species are in season and what species are illegal to consume. Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for directly contributing to environmental degradation.

After visiting the reef at Puntacana Resort & Club that day, Jose Alejandro didn’t find the rainbow parrotfish he was after. But his email mentioned a different positive tendency. “What you guys [Fundación Grupo Puntacana) have achieved in “El Aquario” is probably the best I have seen in 30 years of diving in every corner of the country….I was ecstatic to see a tangible example of how protection can produce results, and quickly!”

Photo José Alejando Álvarez

El Aquario is a functioning no-take fish reserve that now has some of the highest fish densities in the Dominican Republic. Yet, rather than promote our own achievements in one small dive site in Punta Cana, our goal is to create many examples of coral reef recovery throughout the country.

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