By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
AGRICULTURE and Marine Resources Minister Michael Pintard has vowed to “aggressively engage” with stakeholders regarding conch conservation, including starting dialogue on a possible conch season, in the wake of recent reports that the country’s conch supply could be wiped out in ten to 15 years.
Mr Pintard said measures his ministry will be “strongly recommending” will include implementing a minimum lip thickness for conch to be harvested, considering ending conch exports, increasing equipment and personnel available to “ensure compliance” with fisheries laws, and encouraging more participation in the fight against “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing practices.
When asked if the government will consider implementing a conch season, Mr Pintard replied: “That’s an option that will be raised with stakeholders. All reasonable options will be considered and discussed.”
On Friday, The Tribune canvassed vendors, fishermen, and store proprietors at Arawak Cay and Potter’s Cay Dock to find out their views on these dire research findings and the impact such an outcome would have on their livelihood.
The majority of the vendors interviewed doubted the study’s findings, with some describing it as “impossible.” However, they all admitted their dependence on this resource that is seen as a main staple for Bahamians and visitors alike.
In a press release earlier this month, the Chicago-based Shedd Aquarium group revealed its research on more than 3,000 conchs at 42 survey sites throughout the Bahamas between 2009 and 2017.
The findings show that not only are the numbers of adult conch decreasing, but the densities of legal-to-harvest queen conch are now far below the established minimum threshold for reproductive success, except in the most remote areas.
Additionally, the research showed that viable fishery for queen conch in the Bahamas might only last another ten to 15 years, unless significant measures are taken to cut fishing pressure.
“We will act decisively and in a timely manner,” Mr Pintard said in his statement released yesterday.
“My ministry has committed to aggressively engage in widespread consultation with the various stakeholders relative to ‘conchservation’ and the protection of the Bahamian grouper,” he continued.
He noted any policy decision made in this matter will be based on scientific research, followed by dialogue with “fishers, entrepreneurs, scientists, environmentalists, vendors and others” to determine the collective best interest.
“Already our ministry has concluded and will be strongly recommending to stakeholders that we implement a minimum conch lip thickness for conch to be harvested,” Mr Pintard continued.
“We also believe that we must seriously look at the possibility of ending the export of conch. We must increase the equipment and personnel available to ensure compliance with the fisheries laws.
“Also, we must encourage greater participation of stakeholders in the process that would assist in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices especially with regard to the harvesting of our marine resources, inclusive of the queen conch.
“It is also imperative that we conclude the amendments to the draft Fisheries Act which are now being reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office.”
Mr Pintard said the current questions are “to what extent” the conch stock has been depleted and over what period of time; what types of harvesting methods, ranging from the harvesting of immature conchs to the use of compressors, have contributed to this “significant” reduction; and what steps must be taken to “address the growing concerns” about pressures marine life face due to “illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing” in the country’s waters.
Mr Pintard also said the fact that there is a decline in the number of marine products available in traditional fishing areas “should not come as a surprise.”
“The anecdotal evidence is the ongoing stories told by fishers and researchers that persons have to travel further and further away from land in deeper waters to catch conch,” he added.
However, many vendors reacted differently in interviews with The Tribune on Friday.
One Arawak Cay vendor, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested the findings are simply a ploy to “scare the public into having a conch season.”
“But it’s very impossible for our conch to be wiped out when they have so many eggs at one particular time…anywhere from like 200,000 eggs to 500,000 eggs,” the vendor said.
“We’ve been doing this for many, many years,” he continued. “I think we know more about conch than most scientists. Because they study the conch – they’ve never really went out there and dove for the conch or even watched it grow.
“They don’t know (it) the way we know it… They’re in the lab all day, we’re out here all day.”
Many vendors also took issue with the fact that a non-Bahamian company conducted the research — despite the fact that the research was conducted in conjunction with local stakeholders.
“Foreigner don’t know nothing about the Bahamas,” a Potter’s Cay vendor who gave his name as Mr Cartwright said.
“You ga let someone come in your house and tell you how much people live in your house?” a vendor working alongside Mr Cartwright added.
A Potter’s Cay vendor who identified himself as “Popeye da Conch Celebrity” offered a solution to this divide between the scientific and fishing communities.
“You have a lot of different opinions — the scientist saying one thing, the fishermen saying another,” Popeye told The Tribune. “And so there’s a debate in between. (I feel as though) most of the fishermen don’t have a scientist to represent what they’re seeing.”
He like many other vendors fear a conch season, worrying it would hurt their livelihoods.
“This is the only way that I could make a living and if you take this away from me...then what (will) I do?” he questioned.
When asked if the government should implement a conch season, he instead said it should ban export licenses, particularly to companies that are “overfishing a high amount of conch.”
However, some vendors did support the notion of a conch season.
“I don’t think it’s going to be wiped out,” said Keno Watkins, owner and chef of Butter’s Something Different Kitchen at Arawak Cay.
“I think we could probably shorten it, have a little season on it. The demand is so strong, it’s going to be hard for that as well. But other than that…only thing they have to do now is stop them from getting the young conchs.”