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Cutting back on tropical seafood could help save coral reefs

Research from the University of British Columbia has found that reducing the amount of reef fish consumed by tourists in Palau is urgently needed to protect the health of coral reefs and maintain the ecological balance of the ocean. While the study is focused on Palau, a group of 700 islands in the South Pacific, the experts recommend that other small island nations adopt this strategy.

Climate change is projected to cause sharp declines in Palau’s reefs. Researchers have determined that the best management strategy is to reduce tourist consumption of reef fish by over 70 percent.

“Palau’s reefs and the fish communities they host are incredibly beautiful and recognized worldwide as a top diving destination,” said lead author Colette Wabnitz.”Tourist numbers can reach nine times the local population and most come to enjoy the ocean. This puts enormous pressure on local marine resources that are central to local communities’ culture, food security and livelihoods.”

Palau relies is heavily on tourism. Previous research has been focused primarily on physical damage to coral reefs by tourists, but this is the first study to evaluate the impact of visitors’ consumption of reef fish.

Using a social-ecological computer model, the researchers set out to explore policy scenarios involving tourism, climate change, marine conservation, and local food security. The amount of fish being eaten stood out as a major contributor to future ecosystem declines.  

Popular reef fish dishes include grouper, snapper, and parrotfish. The study showed that the health of reefs would benefit greatly by shifting from this type of seafood consumption to open water fish such as sustainably-harvested tuna.

“Dining habits are removing important fish species from local reefs, and it’s ironic that viewing these fish is the reason people come in the first place. This is an important step that can be taken now, rather than a future adaptation to climate change,” said co-author Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor. “Sustainable tourism, especially ecotourism, shouldn’t threaten the food security of local people or their environment.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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