Some realities are harder to digest than others. For Bahamians to whom conch is as much a staple as bread, the reality that the population of the mollusc is declining at an alarming rate and may be gone in 10-15 years if we continue to consume at the current rate is not easy to stomach.
Because it is an inconvenient truth and we don’t want to believe it, there are many among us in The Bahamas who are in denial. They remember the days when conch was so plentiful, you could walk out into Montagu Bay and pick up all you could possibly eat. You’d get tired breaking them out of the shell, skinning, cleaning and prepping before you’d run out of supply.
You could go out toward Atholl Island or Rose Island or the caves off Eleuthera and grab as many as the boat or dinghy could hold, then debate whether to make conch salad, chowder, stew or to scorch or deep fry for cracked conch. It just felt like everywhere you turned there was conch, the choices how to prepare were many and the nearby supply endless. Those were the days long before you had to go all the way to the Berry Islands, Acklins, Crooked or Rum Cay to find the motherload of adult queen conch with a fully-developed, turned lip and some age on her.
It is important to recall those days not only as a dose of reality but because if things continue apace, it could be even more important to fine tune those memories in order to tell your grandchildren what it was like when The Bahamas had conch. You could try to describe the taste. You could show the pictures. You could tell the story of how something so important to a country was, sadly, harvested until there was none left, a story like the wild Colonial Spanish horses of Abaco that no longer exist except in memory and photos. You could share the woeful tale of a nation that had a chance to save the beautiful pink pearl conch with the sweet meat from extinction but we failed.
We are at a crossroads and no matter how hard it is to accept, the first step is to stop denying the truth. We risk witnessing queen conch extinction within our lifetime.
The slow-growing, slow-moving queen conch, the pride of Bahamian culinary culture, is being over-harvested at a pace that far exceeds its ability to reproduce. According to a study of 41 sites in The Bahamas by the Shedd Institute working in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust the population of the queen conch is at its lowest point and the downward trend portends imminent eradication of a delectable and rare food source that has been as much a part of Bahamian culture as Junkanoo.
We can prevent the queen conch from suffering the same fate in The Bahamas as it has in Turks & Caicos and other places in the Caribbean. All we have to do is take the situation seriously and act before it is too late. We must insist on a closed season with enough resources to police the waters and enforce the policy. We must cease the exportation of a resource so special to The Bahamas that people must come here to experience. We must stop thinking of conch as a standard everyday food choice and appreciate it as a delicacy. We must do all of these things NOW or we will face the only other alternative – a five to ten-year moratorium.
If there is any doubt about how effective a ban on harvesting conch is, all you have to do is study the results of the no-take zone of the Exuma Land & Sea Park which has, in many ways, become the queen conch nursery of The Bahamas. By protecting the conch grass, mangroves and natural habitat and not allowing fishing and harvesting the Land & Sea Park has played a critical role in marine life survival.
One thing is certain. Without a closed season, we will have little choice but to enforce a ban.
We learned the value of closed seasons on other species, on Nassau grouper, lobster and crawfish and even ducks. Closed seasons, when obeyed and enforced, work. Denying reality does not. Burying our head in the sand only gets our head sandy. It will not save our delectable mollusc from extinction.