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Pride in parrotfish protects reefs in Mexico

December 21, 2021

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is the narrow waterway separating the Baja California peninsula from the rest of Mexico. Carved off from the rest of the continent by intense tectonic activity, it is one of the world’s most biodiverse seas thanks in part to its varying depth, the rivers that drain into it, and in places, volcanic activity.

The Espíritu Santo archipelago lies just offshore from La Paz, the state capital of sparsely populated Baja California Sur. The shallow waters around the islands are home to dense coral (a rarity so far north on the west coast of the Americas), sea lions, and myriad fish species. A thriving ecotourism industry has sprung up as divers and snorkelers come to swim with the wildlife—especially when enormous whale sharks visit the area each year to feed.

There are five local species of parrotfish, which are key to keeping this rich ecosystem in balance. Using their beak-like mouths, parrotfish scrape algae and dead coral from the reefs. That keeps the coral healthy. And as a bonus, the fish excrete fine sand, which finds its way to La Paz’s popular white sand beaches. The colorful fish are themselves a draw for divers and snorkelers, ambling over the reef and loudly chomping away on the coral.

Unfortunately, irresponsible fishing has put the future of these grazers—and the reef-based ecosystem—in jeopardy. The large, slow-moving fish are easy targets for spearguns and nets. Surveys have shown their numbers declining, and experts have recommended a nine-year moratorium on catching them to allow populations to recover. Some of the methods used to catch them are banned, but parrotfish themselves are not legally protected.

Last summer, Seacology began working with Espíritu Santo es parte de ti (“Espíritu Santo is part of you”), a grassroots organization based in La Paz committed to protecting the marine environment around the archipelago and building local support for conservation. Their advocacy has focused heavily on parrotfish.

The waters around the Espíritu Santo archipelago are home to five species of parrotfish.

Parrotfish graze on algae and dead coral, keeping the area's reefs healthy. © Hannes Klostermann / Ocean Image Bank

The group has already made a significant impact across the La Paz metro area. Local supermarkets and more than 90 restaurants have committed  to take parrotfish off their shelves and menus. Presentations at schools, from primary schools to the state university, have reached thousands of students. The campaign has partnered with local artists to paint dozens of large murals around the city. Even artists not directly affiliated with the project have taken inspiration from it and hidden parrotfish in their own work.

Seacology’s support builds on this momentum, funding a series of videos that will be featured on social and other media. The videos will deepen outreach to the community, especially  fishers and  tourism providers.

“When we started our campaign, a lot of people came to us and told us ‘I didn’t know, now I will stop eating parrotfish’,” explains Lucia Corral, a marine biologist and campaign director for the initiative. “That was our first step, but we got to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough because we still see the fish on the market.”

Prior to the pandemic, our partners were seeing a decline in the number of parrotfish in fish markets.

Our local partners have been working with local artists in La Paz to paint murals inspired by the area's marine life.

The group’s ultimate goal is official legal protection for parrotfish. We have seen campaigns like this succeed—for example, in Colombia, where Seacology worked with activists on Providencia Island to spread awareness of parrotfish. The pressure of that grassroots effort eventually helped enact a legal ban on catching parrotfish, not just on Providencia but also on the larger neighboring island of San Andres.

Corral says the pandemic has made the situation more difficult. The decline in tourism revenue has reduced surveillance of the archipelago’s waters. Struggling members of the fishing community face greater pressure to catch and sell what they can, and illegal fishing, which had been trending downward before the pandemic, has spiked. But she hopes when it comes to parrotfish, people will see the big picture.

“Right now a lot of people are in need, and it’s difficult to talk about the conservation of an animal when people are trying to find something to eat,” she says. “But if we don’t take care of our oceans there won’t be fish for tomorrow. It’s not just about forbidding fishing or the beauty of the species, but the future of the fisheries.”


Watch our interview with Lucia Corral, campaign director of Espíritu Santo es parte de ti, below.