The Q­ueen Conch: Endangered Species?

Opinion by Kip Hansen — 16 January 2023

“Overfishing might put the queen conch—a big marine snail recognized for its showy shell and delectable flesh—on the trail to extinction, U.S. authorities researchers concluded earlier this 12 months after an intensive overview of the species. Federal officers at the moment are contemplating whether or not to checklist the Caribbean species as threatened below the Endangered Species Act (ESA), having wrapped up accumulating public feedback on the proposal final week. However fishing communities in a number of international locations are opposing the transfer, fearful that such an inventory may finish their potential to export conch meat to the USA, their largest market.” [ source – Science Magazine ]

Which U.S. Federal officers are contemplating this drastic transfer? 

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries share duty for implementing the ESA (Endangered Species Act). Usually, U.S. FWS manages land and freshwater species, whereas NOAA Fisheries is chargeable for marine and anadromous species.

[“Anadromous fishes are those that spawn in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to forage and mature, and return to freshwater to spawn and begin the cycle again.”  [ source ] Close to me: salmon and stripped bass. ] 

Why would this be such “drastic” motion? As a result of, based on the Supreme Court docket, the plain intent of Congress in enacting the ESA was to guard species from extinction at any price.

What’s the present authorized standing of the Queen Conch fisheries in the USA?

Queen conch might not be commercially or recreationally harvested in Florida waters per state legislation. [ Queen Conch are not found in any other continental U.S. State. ] Within the Caribbean, NOAA Fisheries and the Caribbean Fishery Administration Council handle queen conch in U.S. federal waters, whereas the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands handle queen conch of their territorial waters.“  Because the map reveals, solely the tiny space east of the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, which is in U.S. Federal waters are open to Queen Conch fishing – and at that, solely 7 months a 12 months.  A lot of the Federal waters space open to conch fishing east of St Croix is 1,000s of toes deep – inconceivable to snorkel for conch there.

What this implies, ultimately, is that there’s (virtually) no Queen Conch fishery in U.S. Federal waters. 

With regard to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the place conch harvest is managed by the territorial businesses;  “Business landings of queen conch meat from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas/St. John (territorial waters) and St. Croix (federal and territorial waters) in 2019 was 160,000 [individual conch] and have been valued at $1 million based on the NOAA Fisheries business fishing landings database.”

The most recent NOAA Fisheries report states clearly:

“In line with the 2009 inventory evaluation queen conch are overfished, however aren’t topic to overfishing based mostly on 2019 catch information.”  [This reflects only conch fisheries in US and US Territorial waters, but not other nations and islands.]

Not all conch fishery scientists agree with the examine relied upon by NOAA Fisheries [repeated link] – College of Puerto Rico’s Richard Appeldoorn, a fisheries biologist, stated “My view of the standing shouldn’t be practically as dire because the report makes out” and referred to as for higher, local-knowledge surveys.    “Mauro Gongora of the Belize Fisheries Division identified that 15,000 folks in his nation profit from conchs, particularly in small coastal fishing villages, and that the conch inhabitants there may be reproducing effectively. “We’re making numerous effort to handle the conch as greatest we are able to, as a result of we acknowledge the significance of this fishery.”” [ source ]

If that’s the case – mainly there aren’t any conch being harvested in U.S. federal waters, and they aren’t presently being over-fished wherever in the USA,  and different international locations and islands have a distinct tackle the scenario— why is NOAA Fisheries proposing to checklist them below the Endangered Species Act?

The most important concern is about Queen Conch in the Bahamas the place the examine was completed.  Within the Bahamas, residents can just about harvest as many mature conch as they want (”The shell will need to have a effectively developed flaring lip. This can be a signal of maturity.”).  And, in precise apply, since juvenile conch have practically as a lot meat as totally mature breeding-age conch, immature conch are harvested and eaten regionally.  And this they do, on an enormous scale (private expertise). 

Foreigners who cruise the Bahamas of their sailboats, sportfishers and yachts are allowed to have six conch onboard at anybody time.  From private expertise, which means that sailors, cruisers, sportfishermen can harvest as many mature conch as they want, having simply sufficient onboard for lunch or dinner at a time.  This rule solely prevents foreigners from business harvest of conch. 

My crew definitely loved conch fritters and conch chowder cooked by my spouse many instances.  Whereas snorkeling and fishing with a Hawaiian sling or a pole spear is tough work, our teenaged son (who later grew to become Co-Captain) stored us well-supplied with lobster and fish.  Conching, then again, is straightforward, all one must do is snorkel over the shallow backside, hold one’s eyes sharp for the conch, which are sometimes camouflaged with sea development on their again,  and choose them up.

It’s unknown many conch are harvested within the Bahamas annually, as a lot of it’s consumed regionally or offered casually.  However information from the Bahamian authorities reveals that in 2018/2019 into 2020, exports of conch meat totaled over half 1,000,000 kilos that was valued at virtually 5 million {dollars}.

The federal government of the Bahamas, alarmed by the current scientific research, pledged as early as 2019 to finish the export of conch and enact tighter conch harvest laws. One press discover said:

Minister of Agriculture Michael Pintard suggested yesterday that there will likely be a ban on the export of conch from The Bahamas by 2022.

“…We additionally signaled to the general public, met with exporters and indicated that we’re going to finish the export of conch and we’ve got during the last two years, going into the third 12 months, progressively decreased the conch quota.”

“By 2022, there will likely be zero exports of conch from the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and vacationers can not harvest conch in Bahamian waters and eat.”

“It won’t be part of the bag or marine sources that they can catch in Bahamians water.”

What are the present laws as of as we speak?

In case you have each visited the Bahamas and sought info on official guidelines and laws, you’ll respect that discovering as we speak’s scenario shouldn’t be straightforward.  Regardless that the Bahamian Minister of Agriculture stated in 2020 that  “[by 2022] vacationers can not harvest conch in Bahamian waters and eat.”  Present recommendation to overseas boaters nonetheless permits conching for consumption and vacationers are allowed to return to the U.S. with as much as ten kilos of conch meat.   

I emailed a specialist on the difficulty final week, Martha H. Davis, who’s a scientist with Neighborhood Conch  which researches and advocates for the restoration of conch shares within the Bahamas and a co-author on the examine that has kicked up a lot fuss. Her reply is right here:

 “As of Could 2022,  we have been informed that the export of conch has presently ended however as a result of the exporters and the fishermen need that. [ meaning not ended by government regulation.] The tip of export is a part of the draft fisheries regs and won’t be unlawful except it’s handed by that course of.   There isn’t any schedule for approval of the draft Fisheries Useful resource Laws and our contact on the Division of Marine Sources has no thought what is going to occur.“ 

Scenario?… guarantees and intent at some degree however no legal guidelines have but been modified and no new legal guidelines are being enforced.  Observe that fishery enforcement is mostly a troublesome concern within the Bahamas with so many outlying islands and only a few enforcement officers. 

Concurrently, this information merchandise is printed October 2022:

“FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA — For the primary time in three years, residents and guests converged on McClean’s City East Grand Bahama earlier this month to have a good time the fiftieth Annual Conch Cracking Competition co-sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, Investments & Aviation (MOTIA) below the theme, “50 Years and Nonetheless Cracking!” 

“The conch-centered occasion is an annual homecoming pageant that began in 1972, the place locals and guests alike have interaction in pleasant competitors for an authentically designed conch trophy. The target of the competitors is to extract and clear as many conchs as swiftly doable.”

NOAA Fisheries’ try and checklist the Queen Conch below the ESA is in step with U.S. Fish and Wildife’s assertion:

“Though the ESA’s prohibitions concerning listed species apply solely to folks topic to the jurisdiction of the USA, the ESA can generate conservation advantages equivalent to elevated consciousness of listed species, analysis efforts to deal with conservation wants, or funding for in-situ conservation of the species in its vary international locations. The ESA additionally offers for restricted monetary help to develop and handle applications to preserve listed species in overseas international locations, encourages conservation applications for such species, and permits for help for applications, equivalent to personnel and coaching.”

Because the Queen Conch is already lined below CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], additional itemizing below ESA appears to be like to be simply one other try of a U.S. federal company to intervene within the affairs of different nations spurred on by involved activist-scientists from the USA. 

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Creator’s Remark and private reflections: 

The scenario is muddled.  There isn’t any doubt that the conch fishery within the Bahamas has been and is being over-fished (I might recommend for not less than the final century). There’s a big quantity stress from outdoors of the nations and territories which have conch fisheries to limit conch harvest and in some instances, to finish conch harvest altogether.  But within the Bahamas, conch is a nationwide treasure, a lifestyle, and an iconic native meals.  The 400,000 Bahamians aren’t going to surrender conching and consuming conch, nor will out-islanders surrender harvesting conch as a meals supply and as a cash-crop on the market to the inhabitants facilities of Nassau and Freeport and the Bahamian vacationer commerce. 

My son handed by the Bahamas two years in the past with a crew of 5 20-something-year-old crusing captains, spent two weeks on one of many out-islands ready for the proper climate to run from the Bahamas on to Puerto Rico below sail the entire means (a uncommon climate situation).  Native fishermen invited he and his friends to exit conching with them sooner or later within the small shallow bay within the barrier reef.  The younger males, with masks and snorkels, held onto a rope towed behind the small outboard-powered boat, unfold out alongside the size of the rope.  As every noticed a conch, they’d drop off, swim down, choose up the conch, and after they re-surfaced, the boat would make a large loop again to them, the conch can be tossed within the passing boat, and the lad would seize the rope as soon as extra.  The fisherman’s objective, for this few hours of conching, was to gather 200 conch.  The fisherman was disenchanted when the overall catch for 3 hours was solely 150.   Three hours, one tiny bay, 150 conch.  Rinse and repeat hundreds and hundreds of instances on lots of of islands (700 islands and a couple of,400 cays).

In our many voyages passing by the Bahamas, each north-to-south and south-to-north, we by no means failed to reap and eat conch and by no means visited a restaurant which didn’t have a number of conch dishes on the menu.  Nor did we ever go to an island with out big piles of discarded conch shells (see the picture on the prime of the essay) – not even on uninhabited islands.

In the long run, I feel that the Bahamian Queen Conch fishery is over-fished, however doubt that this threatens the conch or spells extinction within the current.  I additionally imagine that NOAA Fisheries is being stress by activists scientists into obligating the USA to intervene within the inner affairs of the Bahamas.

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