Parrotfish: Important Coral Reef Keepers

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Parrotfish are more than just a pretty face. The average parrotfish spends up to 90% of its day cleaning the coral reefs. Their sharp beaks allow them to easily scrape algae off corals and rocks, essential for keeping the reefs healthy and thriving. They are especially important to reef health now given the increase in major stressors such as coral bleaching events and Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Increased protection in the Caribbean region will be considered in the next Conference of parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPS) meeting later this year on Aruba. 

Princess Parrotfish (Scarus taeniopterus). Photo credit: Marion Haarsma

Coral reefs provide valuable habitat for fish and other animals. People also benefit from the many ecosystem services coral reefs provide including coastal protection, food and income from tourism and fisheries. In fact, coral reefs are one of the most important sources of income for the Dutch Caribbean islands.  

Important grazers 

Photo credit: Marion Haarsma

Herbivores like parrotfish play a critical role in maintaining healthy coral reefs. They help sustain the delicate balance within the reef by grazing on (macro)algae, which are the main competitors for corals for space and light. The average parrotfish spends up to 90% of its day cleaning the reef. Not only does this fish species keep the algae in check, but these herbivores also create new space for baby corals to attach and grow.  

Besides removing macroalgae and promoting coral settlement and growth, parrotfish are also natural bioeroders producing sediment by grazing on rocks, calcareous algae and corals (less than 10% of their food). Hereby they help recycle nutrients and produce “sand” for (eroded) coastal areas.  

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) report entitled “Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012″ by Jackson et al. (2014) documented quantitative trends on coral reef health over 43 years in the wider Caribbean. The report identifies that one of the major drivers of coral reef decline in the Caribbean is the overfishing of herbivores, particularly parrotfish. 


Parrotfish on Bonaire’s reef. Photo credit: Steph Wear

Parrotfish thrive best in healthy coral reefs ecosystems. Therefore, these fish are subjected to the same threats as corals. This includes the negative effects of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and diseases such as the Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). In addition, overfishing can quickly wipe out local parrotfish populations. Studies show that reefs are healthier and have a higher recovery resilience capability in locations where parrotfish are protected. This highlights the importance of parrotfish for reefs to be able recover and regrow from these threats. 

Protecting Parrotfish 

In the Dutch Caribbean- on Aruba and Bonaire- there are local rules and regulations to protect all parrotfish. On these islands it is prohibited to catch, kill, wound, or disturb them. Luckely for the other islands in the (Dutch) Caribbean, the Kingdom of Netherlands, along with the Republic of France, have formally submitted a proposal to include all parrotfish in Annex III of the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol, a regional agreement for the protection and sustainable use of coastal and marine biodiversity in the Wider Caribbean Region. If approved during the next Conference of parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPS) later this year on Aruba, this measure provides a legal framework for the conservation of the parrotfish to ensure and maintain population at an optimal level in the Wider Caribbean. 

Want to learn more about local parrotfish populations? Check out the following related articles: 

Fish poop: an underappreciated food source for coral reef fishes?,

Recovery of Orbicella annularis corals from parrotfish predation, 

Parrotfish key to reef survival,\ 



The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) supports science communication and outreach in the Dutch Caribbean region by making nature related scientific information more widely available through amongst others the Dutch Caribbean Biodiversity Database, DCNA’s news platform BioNews and the press. This article contains the results from several scientific studies but the studies themselves are not DCNA studies. No rights can be derived from the content. DCNA is not liable for the content and the in(direct) impacts resulting from publishing this article. 

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