On Monday, Boracay-based fashion and portrait photographer JP Talapian took over our Instagram and shared a photo of a fisherman holding a parrotfish—locally known as molmol—which sparked a debate on whether or not this was appropriate, and whether this species should be fished.
Parrotfish are usually colorful (like the vivid turquoise in this photo) and can be found by coral reefs.
There are many published articles that condemn eating parrotfish, citing that it is damaging to coral reefs since parrotfish feed on microscopic algae and dead coral. Older studies—like this one or this one, written in 2017—supported this perspective, but when it comes to fisheries management (a giant, complex topic), there are a lot of factors to consider.
According to Kent Sorgon (an ichthyologist, or fish scientist), finfish like the parrotfish are a huge chunk of our coastal resources, which is also how we derive most of our nutrition.
“Parrotfish are interesting fishes that have a long evolutionary history intertwined with coral reefs and related environments,” Kent says. “With their large bodies, parrotfish contribute a considerable amount to fisheries associated with coral reefs. Coastal communities comprise the majority of these fisheries, and to the local fisherfolk, catching large-bodied fishes like parrotfish is more efficient than catching smaller-bodied fish, like say, rabbitfish (sammaral) or sea breams (bisugo).”
There is no official national ban on catching parrotfish in the Philippines, although such bans do exist in varying degrees in other parts of the world. The effectivity of a ban depends highly on the context of the place.
“Because our reefs are different from, say, reefs in the Caribbean, what scientists observe in that area may not automatically apply here, largely because our reefs have a different composition and history. I think it's something to keep in mind, especially when you read articles that seem to make generalizations of a phenomenon,” Kent says.
“A ban on catching, selling, or trading parrotfish will most likely be difficult to implement. In the context of Philippine fisheries (and likely everywhere else), all a ban does is shift the fishing pressure to other groups of fishes, which may have effects on ecological processes that we have yet to know. Fishing bans may also disproportionately impact small subsistence fishermen more, most of whom already live below the poverty line and rely all the more on immediately accessible sources of nutrition.”
What does this mean? The debate about the parrotfish is important because it is also about communities and resources. On our original post, marine scientist Tara Abrina pointed out that seeing a photo of the parrotfish as catch tells her that the locals are “finally getting first dibs on their own marine resources.”
Research in different areas help paint a better collective understanding of our coral reefs, and how we can conserve them. As Kent points out, scientists are always looking at the bigger picture—and so should we.
“I think one of the things that people misunderstand about parrotfish and their roles in ecosystems is context. Parrotfish do similar functions in coral reefs across different parts of the world, but what is crucial when looking at related studies is that what happens in an area may not apply here, partly because of the location-specific characteristics and events that lead to what scientists observe.”