Protecting parrotfish, from ridges to reefs


How is it that the Hawaiian Islands, with their dark volcanic soils and black lava rock formations, are famous the world over for stunning beaches of powdery white sand?

For that, we can thank parrotfish. Primarily herbivores, these colorful fish graze along coral reefs, using their beak-like dentition (hence the name) to nip off algae and other marine plants that would otherwise smother coral structures. They ingest bits of hard coral as they chomp at the reef. This material is ground up and cleaned as it moves through the fish’s digestive system, exiting the fish as sand. Just one adult parrotfish can produce 1,000 pounds of the stuff in a year. Waves carry this by-product onto the islands, to be enjoyed by all those lucky enough to live in or visit Hawai‘i.

Coral reefs represent some of our planet’s most complex and valuable ecosystems. They are home to a wondrous array of life, provide an irreplaceable source of sustenance and enjoyment to countless people, and protect coastal communities from storms, wave energy and erosion. Yet they are also some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Overfishing, overuse, land-based run-off, plastics and other marine debris, pollution and climate change have driven widespread and sometimes drastic declines in coral health around the globe.


NFWF works with its grantees and a range of public- and private-sector partners to protect, repair and enhance coral reefs wherever they exist in the United States and its territories. NFWF invests in coral propagation and out-planting, critical research to understand the causes of a global decline in coral health, as well as the herculean task of removing marine debris from the reefs of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which encompasses 582,578 square miles northeast of Hawai‘i — an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined.

Coral conservation efforts on islands such as Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico and Guam focus in large part on building coalitions of willing partners to address land-based sources of pollution and siltation. On the Hawaiian island of Lāna‘i, NFWF works with partners to preserve and enhance Lāna‘i’s unique natural and cultural resources “from mauka to makai” (from the top of the mountain down to the ocean), while encouraging community engagement and shared stewardship.

In 2021, NFWF awarded $409,200 in grants to projects on Lāna‘i that will reduce sediment run-off to nearshore reefs, restore native vegetation to improve watershed health, protect and enhance populations of terrestrial and marine species, and bolster community conservation ethic and involvement in landscape protection efforts.


Contributing partners

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