By LARRY SMITH
BAHAMIAN conch populations are in danger of collapsing – as they already have elsewhere in the region – and this was a point of discussion at the Bahamas National Natural History Conference held recently at the College of the Bahamas. The headline takeaway was that a major campaign is being prepared to avert what experts say would be a cultural as well as an ecological catastrophe.
The key point to understand is that conchs don’t reproduce at all if their numbers fall below a certain level within a specified location. That’s because – like groupers – they gather in large spawning aggregations to breed. And scientists have observed no mating at all at a density of less than about 50 adults per hectare.
So having conch in our future diet is based entirely on our ability to maintain sufficient numbers today in enough locations. Unfortunately, this picture is made worse by the fact that conch mature slowly. It takes five years before they reproduce (and they can live up to 40 years), but they are now being harvested well before they have a chance to breed.
At the natural history conference, scientists, fishermen, students and others listened to the latest research and engaged in a roundtable discussion of ways to protect this critically important fishery resource. It was a timely moment, because last year a petition was filed in the US to list the queen conch under the Endangered Species Act.
That would eliminate all trade between the Caribbean and the US, which currently imports more than 70 per cent of the remaining regional conch harvest — including 600,000 tons a year from the Bahamas (other countries that still export conch are Belize, Honduras and the Turks & Caicos Islands). A full-scale status review of the species is now underway by the Americans.
According to Wild Earth Guardians, the group which filed the petition, “Queen conch have already been so heavily exploited in many areas that a viable fishery no longer exists, yet the population continues to be steadily depleted. Listing the queen conch under the ESA would provide essential protection for this species by restricting US take and import.”
In his March 5 speech opening the conference, Prime Minister Perry Christie did not mention conch specifically. But he said “this kind of research-driven conclave gives an opportunity to agree on a path we should never leave. A path where we focus on issues relevant to a sustainable future, so that generations to come can enjoy the kind of Bahamas we are living in today.”
At the close of the conference, the Moore Charitable Foundation (headed by Lyford Cay investor Louis Bacon) announced it was donating $150,000 to the Bahamas National Trust to support conch research and public consultation on fisheries management.
And Eric Carey, the BNT’s executive director, pledged to make conch conservation a top priority over the near term. “We have been asked to conduct a broad national consultation, and to work with other government and non-government agencies as well as fishers. Our goal is to bring everyone on board.”
At the conference, Claire Thomas of the Cape Eleuthera Institute, a research and education facility near Rock Sound, pointed to the increasing harvest of juvenile conch – as evidenced by huge piles of small conch shells that are found everywhere on Eleuthera.
“The conch population around South Eleuthera is definitely declining,” she said. “We must find a way to protect multiple habitats, but conch fishing is so integrated into Bahamian culture that it is difficult to get wide support for increased regulations. We don’t want to stop the fishery, but we need to protect both where the larvae settle and where they come from.”
During the summer breeding season, conchs move to deeper waters and seek members of the opposite sex. Males transfer their sperm and the females eventually lay an egg sack in a sandy area. On hatching, the larvae disperse into the currents for roughly three weeks until they are large enough to settle back into seagrass beds, where they spend their first two to three years of life.
But only a few of the 500,000 eggs in an egg-sack survive long enough to breed the next generation. And research has shown that despite the presence of large seagrass meadows in the Bahamas and Caribbean, only relatively small sectors of these meadows may actually have production potential for queen conch.
These habitats are determined by complex interactions of oceanographic features and biological processes. Scientists say they must be identified, understood, and protected to ensure population stability. Some researchers have compared seagrass beds to tropical rainforests based on their high productivity, complexity, and biodiversity. And it is known that conch play a vital role in shaping these ecosystems.
Unfortunately, conch stocks in some locations are now so low they cannot recover naturally. The solution is to preserve reproductive populations of adequate size. According to Dr Allen Stoner, “this may be done by establishing marine protected areas and by limiting fishing to free diving – since very few conch live deeper than 30 metres and all are accessible to scuba divers. It is a fact that relatively healthy populations of conch are now limited primarily to nations where scuba is prohibited in the collection of conch.”
In the Berry Islands researchers found that juvenile populations in important nursery grounds that were studied in the 1980s had declined a thousand times to only a few hundred individuals by 2009. And of the eight historical fishing grounds surveyed off Andros in 2010, only one had adult densities allowing minimal reproduction.
From this research scientists conclude that conch densities in commercially fished areas of the Bahamas are decreasing to levels that will not sustain the population. Historic fishing grounds surveyed in the Berry Islands, Andros and the Exumas all show evidence of collapsing populations. And conservationists are urging the Bahamas to end conch exports as a result.
According to Catherine Booker, an environmental scientist for the Bahamas-based non-profit research group Community Conch, “the situation requires a paradigm shift in our fisheries management approach. It is amazing and shocking how many conch are being harvested here, and they are already overfished throughout their entire range, with demand increasing despite management efforts.”
Last year, regional experts called for a default eight per cent “of the estimated fishable biomass” to set a precautionary sustainable yield, combined with efforts to rebuild stocks above 100 adult conch per hectare. An export tax was also recommended to finance fisheries research.
Other recommendations included a ban on compressed air-based diving to protect conch in deeper water, a regional two- to three-month closed season around main spawning periods, improved design of marine protected areas, a regional minimum size limit on shells and meat weight, and licensing of vessels to limit participation in the fishery.
Regional measures to prevent poaching included a requirement that vessels which could be involved in unregulated fishing carry a satellite monitoring system and be registered regionally, as well as the development of a “chain of custody” procedure that can trace catches back to their original location and not just to their point of landing or point of export.
A recent report on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Bahamas pointed out that as many as 65 fishing vessels could be operating from Dominican Republic ports, taking Bahamian conch, grouper and other fin fish in large quantities. It was pointed out that each of these vessels could land over 70,000 pounds of catch per trip.
Currently, the Bahamas is the only West Indian country without a closed season on conch. And researchers say the reason landings have been relatively stable in recent years is because more and more juveniles are being harvested. Conch exports are now about a third of the total landings and they continue to grow despite scientific evidence of declining stocks.
Conch has been legally exported from the Bahamas since 1992, which only increases fishing pressure on the resource. The argument from exporters is that the local market cannot absorb the quantity of conch that is currently harvested. But it makes little sense to allow the export of hundreds of thousands of pounds of conch every year, while watching the destruction of this key Bahamian fishery.
Some years ago, an American fishing columnist recalled his boyhood growing up in the Florida Keys: “I never thought there would come a day when we couldn’t go out and harvest conch. Back then diving for queen conch was fun and easy, and everyone had a favourite place to go catch the larger conch,” wrote Captain Pete Peterson.
“Unfortunately, due to overfishing, finding a queen conch in the Keys today has become difficult... even though it has been protected from commercial harvest since 1978. By 1985, it was apparent that the breeding population of conch had been nearly wiped out and recreational fishing was also closed.
“Their demise is a prime example of what can happen when rampant fishing is allowed to occur unchecked. Since the moratorium on harvesting conch was implemented there is a very slow recovery of the conch population in the Keys. To put it in perspective, over 200,000 conchs were harvested in the Keys each year back in the 1960s, now the total population is estimated to be only 100,000.”
So do we really want to preside over the end of this important cultural catch in the Bahamas? At the conference, some called for immediate prosecutions of persons found selling juvenile conch to make the point. Others suggested buying and tagging adult conch to re-seed selected areas – with stiff penalties for anyone found taking them. The general feeling was one of extreme urgency and concern.
A new documentary by master American filmmaker Ken Burns aired on PBS recently. It chronicled one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history, in which bad agricultural practices combined with a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly turned the western plains of the US into a permanent desert.
One of the grizzled farmers who lived through that dreadful experience and was interviewed about the Dust Bowl had this to say: “If the things we’re doing are going to mess up the future – don’t do it.” It’s good advice.
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