Leveraging sex change in parrotfish to manage fished populations

Healthy parrotfish (family Scaridae) communities fulfill the essential ecosystem process of herbivory in coral reefs, but artisanal fisheries that target parrotfish have degraded their populations. Outright bans and gear restrictions that do not allow parrotfish capture can effectively protect and restore parrotfish populations. As these management actions would be unfeasible in many places, options that allow some fishing but still encourage population rebuilding need to be considered. The life history of parrotfish complicates management decisions because they transition from a mostly female “initial phase” to an all-male “terminal phase.” Size-selective fishing on the largest fish can lead to unnaturally low proportions of males in a population, potentially leading to losses in reproduction. At the same time, these visually distinct life phases could present an opportunity to employ a type of catch restriction that would be easy to understand and monitor. We built an agent-based model of the stoplight parrotfish, Sparisoma viride, which included three possible mechanisms of life-phase transitioning, to predict how this species and others like it might react to catch restrictions based on life phase. We found that restricting catch to only terminal-phase (male) fish typically led to populations of greater abundance and biomass and less-disturbed life-phase ratio, compared to a similar fishing mortality applied to the whole population. This model result highlights a potentially important lesson for all exploited protogynous hermaphrodites: a robust population of initial-phase fish may be key to maximizing reproductive potential when the size at life-phase transition compensates for changes in population structure.

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