Parrot Fish in Belize: Are Our Beaches Made of Poop?

A few months ago, I headed to the Truck Stop for a movie presentation by Rachel Graham, shark champion, sea warrior, educator and biologist with the Mar Alliance.  She was presenting an episode of The Great Barrier reef narrated by David Attenborough – SIR David Attenborough – and amidst all the talk of polyps and coral reproduction one statement screamed out to me as totally absurd:  our white sandy beaches are made of parrot fish excrement.

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Wait…what?  Parrot fish?  The beautiful multi-colored clown fish that are constantly gnawing at the reef?  They make our beaches?  I don’t remember seeing thousands of them on my last snorkel.  This seemed incredibly hard to believe.  But then…as I often do…I forgot all about it.

Yesterday I went for a walk north and sat for a bit…admiring the sand and the tiny shells that are all over.  No really…that’s what I was doing.

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Lots of things washed up on the shores during and after Hurricane Earl, big chunks of coral, lots of sponges, lots of seagrass and seaweed, logs, trees and plenty of pretty little shells.

So I got thinking about this bold statement made by the BBC…

And I decided to do some research (no…no parrot fish dissections) – some internet research.  And I found out that the common parrotfish is one interesting creature.  And some think, may be one of the answers for climate change affecting our coral reefs.

Which makes this picture, taken a few years ago in a Portland, OR supermarket pretty sad.

Parrot fish


Here’s what I found out.  Many beaches of the world are made from erosion of rocks offshore or from onshore, headland or river rock, that is crushed by wave action and deposited as beaches.  So your local beach might be made of rock…Florida’s Emerald Coast is white due to quartz from the Appalachian mountains, Hawaii’s famous black beaches are made from volcanic materials, and many are just…sand colored.   On a hot summer day, these beaches heat as rocks do and…can burn your bare feet.

But many of the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean and other tropical spots are different.  The sand is made up of ground coral and pretty shells – calcium carbonate that bleaches white in the sun and stays cool even under the hottest sun.

It makes for gorgeous beaches.

Ranguana Caye off of Placencia

Ranguana Caye off of Placencia

But we don’t see much wave action here on Ambergris Caye much – except during storms.  Where is all this sand coming from?


Crazy thing?  It’s produced by parrot fish.  Not completely…but a shockingly large percentage.

If you’ve been snorkeling or diving at our reef, you’ve definitely seen parrotfish.  And you may have heard them.  With their hard beaks, they bite off chunks of coral.  You can hear the scraping and crunching underwater.

Not only is it an odd looking fish with that beak and all but it tends to be a hermaphordite and some types sleep deeply in a protective mucous pouch.  But that is not at all what I’m talking about…


They eat algae from the coral and excrete sand.  In the Maldives, Scientific America estimates up to 85% of the island chain’s sand.  Other sites and other areas estimate 75-90%.  Parrot fish make 150lbs of sand a year or more…larger ones up to a ton!  They also clean and eat much of that algae fur that can develop on coral while they are doing it.

So…why is this fish for sale at any supermarket?  Not only is it making our beach…but it is cleaning the reef.  Potentially the reefs’ answer to climate change?

They are, thankfully, protected in Belize since 2009 as are other herbivores like Blue Tang.  But they are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.

Super interesting to me.  For lots more information check out these real scientific (and super interesting articles)


This beautiful pictures from ‘s article on the fish

FullSizeRender (62)Maybe you already knew all this – bravo!  And it’s just strange look into the types of things I think about during the slow season.

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