Belize is giving its beleaguered parrotfish, Nassau grouper, and other reef fish a chance to recover from years of overfishing. The national government and minister of agriculture and fisheries signed a sweeping set of new laws to protect the country’s extensive coral reefs, considered to be the most pristine in the Western Hemisphere.

Research by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) helped lay the groundwork for the laws, which set a new standard for coral reef protection in the Caribbean. The first of the new laws will protect parrotfish and other grazers, such as doctor and surgeonfish. These herbivores keep algae growth in check, enabling corals to flourish. In the past, fisherman did not target the grazing fish; rather, they caught mainly snappers and groupers. It was only when these species declined that they turned to the next tier of the food web, and parrotfish began to disappear.

WCS research from Glover’s Reef show that parrotfish are now the most commonly caught fish on this part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. As a consequence, coral cover has declined. Marine researchers expect that the new laws protecting parrotfish and other grazers will help the corals recover.

The second set of regulations will protect Nassau grouper, which is listed as an endangered species by IUCN’s Red List. The new rules set a minimum and maximum size limit, and require that all Nassau groupers be brought back to the dock whole. Until now, fishermen have generally brought in their catch as fillets, making it difficult to monitor catch rates. All other fish can still be brought in as fillets but must retain a patch of skin so authorities can confirm that they aren’t Nassau grouper.

The third regulation bans spearfishing within marine reserves. Spearfishing is the main method used to catch grazing fish, Nassau grouper, and other groupers and has caused severe declines of these species.

Other aspects of the new laws create “no-take” zones in protected areas. South Water Caye and Sapodilla Cayes marine reserves are now closed to fishing, and the Pelican Cayes—a hotspot for rare sponges and sea squirts—are also off-limits. Though these marine reserves were declared in 1996 and form part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site, prior to this law, fishing had been permitted there.

WCS became involved in Belize during the early 1980s when it initiated the planning of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and later helped create Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve. In 1997, WCS opened a state-of-the-art research station on Middle Key in the heart of the reef. The station continues to host marine researchers from around the world.

WCS’s marine conservation work in Belize was made possible in part by the generous support of the Summit Foundation, Oak Foundation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).