stoplight parrotfish by ron lucas

stoplight parrotfish by ron lucas

Coral reef recovery is an issue we might have had to face here in Bermuda, if not for a ban on fish pots in 1990. Fish pots are large wire mesh trapping devices up to 3 cu m (100 cu ft) in size. Fish can swim into them quite easily but it is difficult to find a way out. The pots are non-selective and catch any and all species. Used handily by fishermen in Bermuda for decades, dramatic changes in the fishing industry prompted the ban consideration in the 1980s.

As outlined in the article Banning the Use of Pots and Other Management Introduced in Bermuda to Protect Declining Reef Fish Stocks by James Burnett-Herkes and John Barnes for the 44th Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, it was the significant growth of the fish catch combined with a change in the composition of that catch which posed a serious problem for the island.

In 1950 the food fish harvest was 450,000 kg, with grouper making up 70% and snapper accounting for 20%. By 1989 the annual harvest reaped 620,000 kg of food fish, with grouper and snapper accounting for just 19% and 10%, respectively, but miscellaneous reef fish, such as parrotfish and grunt, making up 31% (all figures, J Burnett-Herkes and J Barnes, p241).

This was challenging on several levels.

First, the decline in the catch of grouper and snapper, both carnivores, was made up for by placing pots where reef fish, which are herbivores, could be caught instead. Second, reef fish play a key part in the reef ecosystem, having the role of keeping corals clean by eating the algae that might otherwise form and grow. Third, the sheer volume of fish being harvested did not appear to be sustainable.

The ban on fish pots was instituted and, for many, it was not a day too soon.

 chagos archipelago by nick graham

chagos archipelago by nick graham

The ban stopped the depletion of reef fish, alleviating possible degradation of the reefs and, since then, fish stocks have visibly improved. Scuba divers and snorkelers regularly see beautiful parrotfish and other reef fish crowding the corals. It is common, even, to see these colourful creatures wandering along in the shallows of Bermuda's south shore beaches. A version of the fish pot is allowed now for the purpose of catching only lobsters (by licence) during certain times of the year, and this is working.

Other countries are not as lucky. A failure to take action or action taken too late can have devastating consequences. As noted in the article, A Long Road to Recovery for Coral Reefs by Kate Wheeling for Pacific Standard, protected reefs may recover in as little as 35 years, while more heavily depleted and degraded reefs might take more than 50 years. She states an estimated 20% of the earth's coral reefs have collapsed beyond recovery already. While protected marine sanctuaries may be ideal, you can't ignore that, for many people, fishing is necessary for both food and income.

Bermuda is fortunate. We dodged a bullet by making a hard decision, and now all of us can enjoy this beautiful marine environment.