Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, supporting a wide range of marine life. Not only that but also people benefit from the many ecosystem services they provide. Coral reefs are considered one of the most important sources of income for the tropical Caribbean islands. Unfortunately, they are facing numerous threats, including climate change, pollution, and overfishing.
With today´s blog, we want to highlight the unnoticed heroes of the reefs and how their unstoppable daily work supports the health of this vital ecosystem: the herbivores of the ocean.
Several studies report that one of the major drivers of coral reef decline in the Caribbean waters is the overfishing of herbivores, particularly parrotfish. Why is this the case?
Well, let’s dive into this topic and uncover their vital contributions!
Guardians Against Overgrowth: Parrotfish Lifestyle
Herbivores play a pivotal role in maintaining the delicate health of the vibrant reefs. There is one group that takes on a prominent role when we talk about protecting and maintaining the health of Caribbean reefs, as well as the rest of the tropical coral reefs: parrotfish.
Parrotfish are colorful fish with beak-like mouths found in warm waters. They eat algae on coral reefs, which can become a problem for the corals. Too many algae compete with corals for space and can harm them. Parrotfish help by eating the extra algae and keeping the reef clean. This helps baby corals find a good spot to grow. So, parrotfish play an important role in keeping coral reefs healthy!
In essence, parrotfish are the frontline defenders, helping corals resist the challenges posed by environmental stressors like algae overgrow.
Parrotfish: reef architects and beach builders
Beyond their algae-controlling properties, parrotfish play a pivotal role in creating sandy shores and tropical beaches. The tropics are often known for their gorgeous, white sandy beaches. You might be surprised to learn that parrotfish are the unnoticed architects behind this beauty and that this doesn´t always happen in the way you may think.
As parrotfish graze on the algae-covered rocks, their strong beaks break down the hard coral, producing fine sand. But this sand creation is also made by other means: after munching on a delicious meal, the coral is broken down into sand before traveling through the long intestine of the animal and shooting out through the exit door in a blast of sand. Yes, you understood that correctly, white sandy beaches contain a significant amount of fish poop. Parrotfish poop to be exact.
Parrotfish are responsible for creating up to 85 percent of sand produced in reef areas. This natural process contributes to the creation of picturesque beaches along the tropics.
The average parrotfish spends up to 90% of its day cleaning the coral reefs. They are currently extra important to the reef’s health, given the increase in stressors such as coral bleaching events and Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD).
While parrotfish are crucial to coral reef ecosystems, they also face survival challenges. Overfishing, habitat degradation, and climate change threaten their populations, putting the delicate balance of the reef at risk.
Luckily in Bonaire, there are local rules and regulations to protect all parrotfish as it is prohibited to catch, kill, wound, or disturb this group. Thanks to the efforts of an entity like STINAPA, founded in 1962, in charge of managing Bonaire´s Marine Park. They are responsible for ensuring that these laws are complied with and because of this, the parrotfish population has almost doubled, compared to other reef areas in the Caribbean region. This factor has played an important role in Bonaire’s reef status being considered one of the healthiest in the Great Caribbean Region.
Want to know more
If you want to acquire more knowledge about the rest of the herbivore groups or become a master of fish identification and the relationships between corals and marine species you should go for one of these courses:
- PADI Underwater Naturalist specialty: Through class discussions and on two scuba dives, you’ll learn the key differences between the terrestrial and aquatic worlds, the major aquatic life groupings, interactions and information that dispels myths, as well as responsible interactions with aquatic life.
- PADI Fish ID specialty: This specialty is the perfect opportunity for those who want to learn more about the brilliantly colored tropical fish and other marine creatures in their natural environment. During two scuba dives you´ll learn the names of the animals you are looking at, what makes them unique, what relatives they may have in different oceans of the world, and other fascinating facts about their origin and behavior.
We can ensure you that by participating in these courses, you are certain to gain a profound understanding of marine ecosystems, recognizing various species of underwater life, their behaviors, and the intricate interplay between marine organisms in their natural habitat.
Conservation efforts must focus on sustainable fishing practices and habitat protection to ensure the continued presence of these vibrant reef architects. The next time you dive on the beautiful Caribbean reefs, take a moment to appreciate the dazzling parrotfish and its invaluable role in maintaining this underwater paradise.
Their vibrant colors, unique behaviors, and essential contributions to reef health make them worth their name as true guardians of the Caribbean seas.
Our dive guides are happy to share their wisdom with you and make you a true parrotfish pro. Don´t hesitate to sign up with us on your next Bonaire adventure to learn more about its amazing underwater world!