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Protecting Endangered Caribbean Corals

Excessive algal growth is threatening the health of Caribbean reefs, choking out corals and degrading the habitat that other reef creatures—such as fish, sea turtles and lobsters—depend on. Fish, especially parrotfish, which graze on algae around coral reefs, play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals to settle and build those reefs.

  • Staghorn coral in a healthy reef.

    Elkhorn and staghorn corals were once the dominant reef-building corals in the Caribbean. Today, they are perilously close to extinction. And fish like parrotfish, which play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals by grazing on algae around the reefs, are being dangerously overfished. Above, small mouth grunts swim past elkhorn coral.

    Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock
  • A stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) grazes.

    A stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) grazes. Coral reefs in the Caribbean survive partly through the habits of parrotfish, which graze on algae that would otherwise stunt the corals' growth.

    National Park Service Photo
  • Elkhorn coral.

    Corals suffer from a variety of threats, including pollution, global warming and ocean acidification. A key threat to corals, however, continues to be overfishing and competition with algae. The corals have declined by more than 90 percent since the 1970s.

    Tina Sotis / Shutterstock
  • Stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).

    Two stoplight parrotfish (sparisoma viride) swim in a healthy reef. Fish, especially parrotfish, which graze on algae around coral reefs, play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals to settle and build those reefs.

    Vilaine Crevette / Shutterstock
  • Staghorn coral.

    In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn corals (above) were protected under the Endangered Species Act in response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. In 2012, Earthjustice, representing CBD, filed a lawsuit seeking greater protections from fishing for threatened coral reefs in the Caribbean.

    R. Gombarik / Shutterstock
  • Rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia).

    Rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia). The lawsuit asserts that the National Marine Fisheries Service ignored science showing that parrotfish and other grazing fish play a key role in promoting the health of coral reefs; the government’s authorization of targeted fishing for parrotfish poses a risk to elkhorn and staghorn corals.

    Brian Lasenby / Shutterstock
  • Staghorn coral.

    Staghorn coral. According to the lawsuit, the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act by finding that the targeted fishing for parrotfish would not jeopardize already imperiled corals or “adversely modify,” (i.e. damage) their critical habitat.

    Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock
  • Queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula).

    Queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula). Fish populations in the Caribbean have been overfished, including the parrotfish that are the subject of this lawsuit. Managing the overfishing of parrotfish will help corals recover and become more resilient to other threats, including global warming and ocean acidification.

    Tommcdow47 / iStockphoto
  • Princess parrotfish (Scarus taeniopterus).

    Princess parrotfish (Scarus taeniopterus). Parrotfish, which graze on algae around coral reefs, play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals to settle and build Caribbean reefs. Excessive algal growth threatens the health of Caribbean reefs, choking out corals and degrading the habitat that other reef creatures—such as fish, sea turtles and lobsters—depend on.

    Comstock Images
  • Elkhorn coral reef, with white spotted tilefish.

    A white spotted tilefish swims past elkhorn coral. “Restoring healthy populations of elkhorn and staghorn coral is critical to restoring the health of Caribbean reefs as a whole,” said Andrea Treece, an Earthjustice attorney.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo
  • Parrotfish.

    Parrotfish swim through a reef. “These corals provide shelter, nursery grounds, and hunting grounds for an incredible array of fish, lobsters, sea turtles and other species," says Treece. "Without better protection, we risk losing the entire reef community.”

    Richard Carey / Thinkstock

"Restoring healthy populations of elkhorn and staghorn coral is critical to restoring the health of Caribbean reefs as a whole … Without better protection, we risk losing the entire reef community," says attorney Andrea Treece.

Related Video

Coral and Parrotfish: A Love Story – It’s true. Coral can’t live without parrotfish. These brightly colored fish help keep Caribbean coral reefs growing by grazing on algae that can smother them. Watch the love story unfold in this video featuring attorney Andrea Treece as she fights to save coral using the power of law.

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