By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
“Very alarming” survey results have revealed that the Bahamian conch population is being driven to extinction, the Bahamas National Trust’s (BNT) executive director yesterday saying this would have a “very detrimental economic impact” on hundreds of people.
Disclosing that the Government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were set to meet this Wednesday to come up with a ‘Conchservation’ strategy for the Bahamas, Eric Carey described the situation as “the number one marine resources management issue in the Bahamas”.
While unable to quantify when, at the present rate of harvesting, the Bahamian conch population would be driven to extinction, Mr Carey said one of the likely recommendations would be that conch exports be banned or limited.
The Bahamas currently exports some $3.3 million, or 600,000 pounds, worth of conch per annum, but Mr Carey said halting this would not put any fishermen or processors out of business.
“No more than 20 per cent” of the conch harvested in the Bahamas was sold for export, he added, stating that the conservation problem was being driven by local consumption.
Apart from impacting the income of fishermen and their families, Mr Carey said any shortage of conch would impact a major part of Bahamian tourism cuisine - and take away a key marketing tool for the industry.
Referring to conch population studies and surveys supported by both the BNT and the Government, Mr Carey said: “What we have said to the Government is that we need to take a serious look at the conch stocks.
“These surveys revealed some very alarming results, and they are very concerning for the Berry Islands and the Abacos.”
A 2011 report by Community Conch, an organisation involved in the sustainability discussions, revealed that juvenile populations in important Berry Islands nursery grounds had “declined 1,000 times to a few hundred individuals in 2009” when compared to 1980s numbers.
As for Andros, of the eight historic fishing grounds surveyed, only one in 2010 had a large enough adult conch population to permit reproduction.
And, in Exuma, Community Conch found that the adult conch population on Lee Stocking Island had fallen by 91 per cent between 1994 and 2011, with the bank population in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park off by 69 per cent over the same period.
“Conch densities are decreasing in commercially-fished areas to levels that will not sustain the populations,” Community Conch found.
“Conch densities in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park study area have decreased 35 per cent in the last two decades. Fishing grounds in the Berry Islands, Andros and Lee Stocking Island all show evidence for collapsing populations.”
While the BNT had ben “very successful” with turtle, grouper and shark conservation, Mr Carey described conch as “a different kettle of fish”.
While turtles and sharks were hardly eaten locally, and grouper was seen as a more expensive delicacy, conch was available on a “more broad scale”.
Acknowledging that care had to be taken when talking about conch exports, and limiting/banning them, Mr Carey told Tribune Business: “We have to be careful. Exports are no more than 20 per cent of what is taken overall. This will not be one that will put people out of work. We can sell all the conch we have in the Bahamas.
“The exports are not what is driving the numbers down. It is national consumption.”
Community Conch, in a note sent to the Government last year, said the Department of Marine Resources had recommended ending exports, but this had not been approved. It added that export quotas were exceeded in 2009.
Other solutions mulled were an export tax, such as Jamaica’s $1 per pound; certification for all conch caught and eaten locally/internationally; and getting restaurants to only buy conch sustainable caught.
Apart from widespread under-reporting of conch harvests, Mr Carey added: “The poaching, which we know is significant, especially in the southern Bahamas, we cant’ even estimate that.
“We’re going to need a lot of conch to support what’s eaten in the hotels. It’s an important part of the tourist cuisine.”
To tackle the issue, Mr Carey said the BNT’s president, Neil McKinney, had convened a Wednesday meeting featuring the likes of Community Conch, the Department of Marine Resources, Eleanor Phillips of the Nature Conservancy and Casuarina McKinney-Lambert of BREEF. The aim was to put together a conservation and sustainable resources management initiative, along with a communications programme.
“It is the number one marine resources management issue in the Bahamas right now,” Mr Carey told Tribune Business.
“What the former government did was request that a plan for conch management be prepared. We met with the Prime Minister last week, and he is definitely very interested in making sure the discussions start very quickly about conch.”
While there were concerns about the sustainability of the Bahamian crawfish population, Mr Carey said these were already being addressed by stakeholders.
Nothing was currently being done about conch, and the BNT chief said the only existing restriction was they could not be caught before reaching sexual maturity.
“Other than that it’s open season every day of the year,” Mr Carey said. “When you consider the stakes of the game, it’s a lot, and impacts so many Bahamians at so many levels.
“We cannot delay this discussion. Is it going to be extinct in 15 years if we don’t act, is it going to be five years if we don’t act, I don’t know.
“It is extremely important. Conch is a product that so many fishermen harvest consistently, and do it all year-round. It is important to returning economic funds into fishermen’s hands when the lobster prices are low or there is a poor harvest. It is a sustainable product in terms of providing sustainable income for a lot of fishermen,” Mr Carey added.
“We have included the marketing of conch in our tourism campaigns, through the likes of conch salad. That’s the whole Arawak Cay experience.”
Vendors, and their Bahamian and tourist customers, were heavily dependent on conch as a staple product, Mr Carey added.
“It is so important nationally from an economic perspective,” he told Tribune Business, “right down to the little fisherman that sells 70-80 to support his family for a few weeks.
“A lot of reasons why conservation efforts have fallen short of their potential is because everyone has looked at the sexy stuff, the environment and conservation, but the economics are so important.
“That drives home to people it is not about sustaining conch in and of itself as an organism, but the economic impact of it going extinct is detrimental to so many people.”