U.S. Caribbean Blazes New Path Toward Protecting Corals, Fish & Communities

Island-based fishery management plans afford extra protection for reef herbivores, such as the princess parrotfish pictured here. Photo: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

One size doesn’t fit all. This cliché was at the heart of a decision last year by the San Juan, Puerto Rico-headquartered Caribbean Fishery Management Council to revamp fishing guidelines in the U.S. Caribbean. This is significant because up until this time, the Council set most of its fishing rules by treating Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as a single unit. But this approach didn’t account for the differences in culture, fishing practices, or the marine environment across the communities. For example, the plans for St. Croix, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas/St. John may now each call for a different catch limit for the same species, allowing a higher limit where the fish is more culturally important or more abundant. The guidelines will take effect in early 2021.

A diver swims near a relic anchor. Island-based fishery management plans help ensure healthy ecosystems that support tourism and recreation. Photo: JP Zegarra

“First, the plans establish annual catch limits and other protections for nearly two dozen heavily targeted species that, until now, had no safeguards. These include protections for dolphinfish, also known as mahi-mahi; the number one catch of recreational anglers in Puerto Rico and a popular commercial target as well,” says Holly Binns, project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to conserve marine life in the U.S. “Second, the plans reduce catch limits for parrotfish and surgeonfish to more effectively account for their essential role in maintaining healthy coral reefs. In an intricate underwater dance, these keystone species feed on algae that would otherwise smother reefs. And finally, the plans maintain a prohibition on the extraction and possession of all corals which are often targeted and removed by the aquarium trade industry. www.caribbeanfmc.com, www.pewtrusts.org 

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.