Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Why The Strange and Wonderful Parrot Fish Is In Trouble

Jun 11, 2021

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is obsessed with one research subject — the parrot fish. She says there is urgent work to be done to save them and their home, the coral reefs.

About Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist. She has founded or co-founded the following institutions and initiatives: Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank focused on coastal cities; Ocean Collectiv, a strategy consulting firm for conservation solutions; and The All We Can Save Project, a climate initiative. She is also the co-host of the podcast How to Save a Planet.

She previously served as the executive director of the Waitt Institute, where she led the Caribbean's first successful island-wide ocean zoning efforts. Prior to that, she worked on ocean policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Johnson earned her B.A. in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University, and her Ph.D. in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Fiona Geiran and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, a love letter to the sea. And we often hear from scientists on the show who adore their research subjects. But marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is really obsessed with one particular fish. In 2019, Ayana gave a talk that was both a declaration of her love for the parrotfish and an urgent plea to save them and their home.


AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I want to tell you a love story. But it doesn't have a happy ending.


JOHNSON: Once upon a time, I was a stubborn 5-year-old who decided to become a marine biologist. 34 years, 400 scuba dives and 1 Ph.D. later, I'm still completely enamored with the ocean. I spent a decade working with fishing communities in the Caribbean, counting fish, interviewing fishermen, redesigning fishing gear and developing policy. I've been helping to figure out what sustainable management can look like for places where food security, jobs and cultures all depend on the sea.

In the midst of all this, I fell in love with a fish. There are over 500 fish species that live on Caribbean reefs. But the ones I just can't get out of my head are parrotfish.


JOHNSON: Parrotfish live on coral reefs all over the world. There are 100 species. They can grow well over a meter long and weigh over 20 kilograms. But that's the boring stuff. I want to tell you five incredible things about these fish.

First, they have a mouth like a parrot's beak, which is strong enough to bite coral. But mostly they're after algae. They are the lawnmowers of the reef. This is key because many reefs are overgrown with algae due to nutrient pollution from sewage and fertilizer that runs off of land. And there just aren't enough herbivores, like parrotfish, left out on the reefs to mow it all down.

OK. Second amazing thing - after all that eating, they poop fine, white sand. A single parrotfish can produce over 380 kilograms of this pulverized coral each year. Sometimes when scuba diving I would look up from my clipboard and just see contrails of parrotfish poop raining down. So next time you're lounging on a tropical white sand beach, maybe think of parrotfish.


JOHNSON: Third, they have so much style. Mottled and striped, teal, magenta, yellow, orange, polka-dotted, parrotfish are a big part of what makes coral reefs so colorful. Plus, in true diva style, they have multiple wardrobe changes throughout their life - a juvenile outfit, an intermediate getup and a terminal look.

Fourth, with this last wardrobe change comes a sex change from female to male termed sequential hermaphroditism. These large males then gather harems of females to spawn. Heterosexual monogamy is certainly not nature's status quo.

Fifth, and the most incredible - sometimes when parrotfish cozy up into a nook in the reef at night, they secrete a mucus bubble from a gland in their head that envelops their entire body. This masks their scent from predators and protects them from parasites so they can sleep soundly. I mean, how cool is this?


JOHNSON: So this is a confession of my love for parrotfish in all their flamboyant, algae-eating, sand-pooping, sex-changing glory. But with this love comes heartache. Now that groupers and snappers are woefully overfished, fishermen are targeting parrotfish. Spearfishing took out the large species. Midnight blue and rainbow parrotfish are now exceedingly rare, and nets and traps are scooping up the smaller species.

And then there's my love for their home, the coral reef, which was once as vibrant as Caribbean cultures, as colorful as the architecture and as bustling as Carnival. Because of climate change, on top of overfishing and pollution, coral reefs may be gone within 30 years. An entire ecosystem, erased.

We're in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and we humans are causing it. We also have the solutions. Every bit of habitat we preserve, every tenth of a degree of warming we prevent, really does matter.


JOHNSON: A little bit of good news is that places like Belize, Barbuda and Bonaire are protecting these VIPs - very important parrotfish. Also, more and more places are establishing protected areas that protect the entire ecosystem. These are critical efforts. But it's not enough. I am never going to give up working to protect and restore this magnificent planet because I don't know how to give an honest talk about my beloved parrotfish and coral reefs that has a happy ending.


ZOMORODI: That was marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She is the host of the podcast "How To Save A Planet." You can find all of Ayana's talks at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.