By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
A NEW study has documented evidence of a thriving conch population located at a remote bank in The Bahamas, bringing hope for conch conservationists.
The research published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems by scientists at the University of Texas found that “one of the three highest abundances of queen conch” in the wider Caribbean is located in Cay Sal Bank, which is a secluded area that is distant from most of those who fish. The discovery came after a research team, led by authors of the study - Philip Souza Jr and Andy Kough - was formed to survey the conch population during the conch mating season in June 2018.
Researchers said conch abundance data was collected and analysed by using several methods to estimate the overall stock size.
“The stock estimates were all in agreement that the Cay Sal Bank population numbers were one of the highest surveyed in the Caribbean. The shells’ length and thickness were also measured to estimate the relative age of the population, revealing some of the thickest shells—thus, oldest conch—surveyed in The Bahamas,” the report added.
Mr Souza Jr said the secluded bank was “logistically” challenging for researches to study as they were not certain what they would find.
“We were not sure what we would find since we were surveying shallow areas with evidence of fishing,” said Mr Souza Jr, a PhD. student at the University of Texas and lead author of the study. “We were astounded to discover densities matching the old-time fishing tales that I had heard from time spent visiting family and friends on Great Exuma.”
Mr Kough, a research biologist at Shedd Aquarium and co-author of the study, added: “We discovered that Cay Sal Bank had tremendously abundant conch, loads of breeding and plenty of recruitment. We are hopeful that evidence of a robust and natural conch refuge may fuel future legislative protection specific to the bank.”
Previous research has indicated rapid declines of the queen conch in The Bahamas as a result of overfishing.
In an effort to preserve the queen conch for future generations, the government has implemented several fishing regulations and has established marine protected areas, including Cay Sal Bank.
However, according to marine scientists, “a lack of baseline population data—or a pristine natural population to use as a model—makes it difficult to determine if these measures are effective.”
Due to its high population and “unique oceanographic position,” Mr Kough noted that it’s important for the country to keep the bank protected through its conservation measures.
“A protected and productive breeding population on Cay Sal is ideally placed to send the next generation of conch elsewhere in The Bahamas and help replenish declining stocks,” said Mr Kough. “Further research will show the broader impact of Cay Sal, but the presence of a healthy population was a breath of fresh air for ‘conchservation’.”