By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE livelihoods of more than 9,000 Bahamian fishermen and their families are under threat from the 80 per cent conch population decline since the 1980s, it has been revealed.
An Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report, accompanying a $500,000 project to enhance 'community-based conch management' in the Family Islands, warned that overfishing and environmental degradation were making fishing "economically unviable for many.
It added that the reduced conch population was also impacting a key source of food security and foreign currency earnings, with conch exports totalling more than $2.3 million in 2015.
The project, which will be executed by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, aims to develop sustainable conch fisheries harvesting and management practices in two Grand Bahama communities as an initial pilot.
"Conch is an important source of income for Bahamian communities, a staple in their diet and is important to cultural identity," the IDB paper said. "This resource contributes to food security for economically-challenged fishing communities in New Providence and the Family Islands, and represents the second most valuable marine export of the Bahamas.
"In 2015, the quantity of conch meat exported was 401,838 pounds, which was valued at $2.343 million." This places it second being crawfish/lobster as the Bahamas' main seafood export, but the IDB report added: "More significant than its importance as an export product, the majority of conch landed in the Bahamas is consumed locally.
"Local consumption was estimated at 1.3 kilograms per capita per year in 2010 and 2011. In addition to their importance for food security and as an export product, conch also play a critical role in the health of marine ecosystems such as seagrass beds, which themselves provide nursery grounds for other commercially important species such as lobster and help buffer coasts from storms."
Pointing out that conch has been a key food source for generations, the IDB report said: "Closely linked with conch's cultural value is its provision of jobs, such as for fishermen, processors, buyers, restauranteurs, vendors, boat makers and other positions throughout the value chain.
"The exact number of conch fishers and other livelihoods supported by conch in the Bahamas is not well documented. The most recent fisheries censuses, conducted in 1995, estimated 9,300 commercial fishers and 18,000 recreational fishers in the Bahamas, although the exact proportion of fishers targeting conch is not known.
"This means that approximately 15 per cent of the labour force is working full-time or part-time in the fisheries sector or related businesses, and that about a quarter of households derive some income from fisheries or related business."
Acknowledging the threat from foreign poachers, the IDB paper said illegal harvesting and unsustainable fishing practices was a "widespread problem" in the Caribbean.
"While the Bahamas is fortunate in being one of the few countries in the Caribbean where conch can still be harvested and exported, stocks are declining due primarily to overharvesting, including from foreign fishers, and habitat degradation," it warned.
"Overfishing, particularly of juveniles, increasingly undermines the sustainability of the conch fishery throughout the country. The density of mature conch on the ocean floor is crucial for the reproduction of queen conch, while the density thresholds recommended by scientists and policy makers to support breeding is between 50 and 100 adult conch per hectare.
"Densities in the Bahamas have dropped since the 1980s from 50 per hectare to 10 per hectare, a density too low to sustain reproduction. Low queen conch densities observed at several Family Islands such as Andros Island suggest that queen conch fishing is no longer viable in some locations.
"Accordingly, low population levels have made conch fishing economically unviable for many fishers, and natural disasters (tropical storms) pose serious risks for the resilience of fishers. In general, consumers are uninformed about the severity of the resource depletion, limiting the ability for fishers to capture benefits from fishing sustainably. The decline in conch stocks threatens the livelihoods of over 9,000 fishers who are considered vulnerable with limited alternative employment opportunities."
The IDB paper said the BNT had launched a nationwide 'conchservation' campaign to raise awareness about the economic, health and environmental implications of conch depletion and overfishing. It added that 10 per cent of the Bahamas' nearshore coastal environment was now under protection from the 51 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that cover almost 13 million acres.
However, only a few MPAs had fisheries management plans, and the IDB paper said: "If stocks are to be restored and community livelihoods maintained, there is a need to provide multiple incentives to fishers and their families to change behaviour towards more sustainable fishing practices."
It added that research had shown the most effective way to achieve this was via a community-based approach, where fishermen were given exclusive rights to fish in particular areas, and provided with access to new markets, new gear, training and other assistance.
"Evidence in the Caribbean and worldwide shows that this community-based approach to fisheries management is more sustainable in the long term, particularly in remote archipelagos where enforcement by fisheries authorities faces constraints," the IDB paper said.
"However, there is little to no experience in using a community-based approach for managing conch in the Bahamas. Through a combination of community-based fisheries management, improved economic return from diversification of income and/or added-value products, and the creation of a local market for sustainably-fished conch, this [project] seeks to align economic incentives to reduce poverty in one of the most vulnerable segments of the Bahamian population with environmental sustainability and develop a model that can be replicated in other regions of the Bahamas."