Q&A with biology professor John Bruno on decline of fish in coral reefs

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A study done by researchers at UNC has shown that up to 90 percent of predatory fish in coral reefs around the Bahamas, United States, Cuba, Mexico and Belize are gone due to predatory fishing. 

The Daily Tar Heel’s Neecole Bostick interviewed John Bruno, a professor in the UNC Department of Biology, about the rapid decrease in fish.

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Neil Hammerschlag captured a high-definition photo of reef sharks swimming with fish. (Photo courtesy of Neil Hammerschlag)

The Daily Tar Heel: Why should we care about the fish?

John Bruno: For one, large vertebrate animals are under enormous pressure from (a) variety of factors, like fishing and human population growth. They could go extinct because they have smaller population sizes.

Predators are very sensitive to these factors. They have not evolved to fight against these factors, but prey generally have.

There’s a lot of economic and environmental factors ... affected by this. Coral reefs play a large part in tourism of these places. It’s a booming industry, and people pay a lot of money to see the wildlife in these ecosystems. It’s an enormous economic opportunity to restore these ecosystems, and will affect local coastal communities …

This is also very reflective of the entire ocean. Numbers of studies around the world have shown the same exact trend of roughly 90 percent of fish being removed. There are very few parts of the ocean where this hasn’t already happened. The problems are generally less severe in wealthier countries because there is less pressure to fish intensively — more so in the Florida Keys — than relatively poor Caribbean islands, like Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But other countries have begun to think about how to deal with this, like the Bahamas or Palau, and have started banning shark fishing.

DTH: Are these reefs protected by government laws?

JB: No, only 1 percent of the ocean is in a protective state, and many of those places are in paper parks (where there is no enforcement, but the law is on the books) ... It’s like declaring Yellowstone a park, (but) letting people build homes and go hunting.

DTH: How would the animals be protected?

JB: In the U.S., there is discussion about how the Endangered Species Act should be repealed, so that we no longer list species as threatened. That would be a tragedy. The bald eagle, bears — the only reason we have them is because (of) the ESA and the legislation we used to enforce it. Next week there will be a hearing about the marine protected areas we have built up in the last 10 to 15 years, and actions taken to disrupt them.

DTH: How do you suggest individuals should take action?

JB: Ideally what we hope to happen in the upcoming years, (in) the (United States), and more importantly Caribbean islands, is to set aside certain (portions of) coral reefs where we see no fishing zones and protect coral reefs. An important part of the study was not just measuring how much predatory fish have been lost, but also identify(ing) reefs where restoration will be most effective. Environmental factors that are beneficial to sharks, barracudas, groupers, protect them from fishing and find, by far, (the) best predatory population.

We want to effectively focus conservation efforts.

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