Opinion by Kip Hansen — 16 January 2023
“Overfishing may put the queen conch—a large marine snail known for its showy shell and delectable flesh—on the path to extinction, U.S. government researchers concluded earlier this year after an extensive review of the species. Federal officials are now considering whether to list the Caribbean species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), having wrapped up collecting public comments on the proposal last week. But fishing communities in several countries are opposing the move, worried that such a listing could end their ability to export conch meat to the United States, their largest market.” [ source – Science Magazine ]
Which U.S. Federal officials are considering this drastic move?
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries share responsibility for implementing the ESA (Endangered Species Act). Generally, U.S. FWS manages land and freshwater species, while NOAA Fisheries is responsible for marine and anadromous species.“
[“Anadromous fishes are those that spawn in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to forage and mature, and return to freshwater to spawn and begin the cycle again.” [ source ] Near me: salmon and stripped bass. ]
Why would this be such “drastic” action? Because, according to the Supreme Court, the plain intent of Congress in enacting the ESA was to protect species from extinction at any cost.
What’s the current legal status of the Queen Conch fisheries in the United States?
“Queen conch may not be commercially or recreationally harvested in Florida waters per state law. [ Queen Conch are not found in any other continental U.S. State. ] In the Caribbean, NOAA Fisheries and the Caribbean Fishery Management Council manage queen conch in U.S. federal waters, while the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands manage queen conch in their territorial waters.“ As the map shows, only the tiny area east of the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, which is in U.S. Federal waters are open to Queen Conch fishing – and at that, only 7 months a year. Most of the Federal waters area open to conch fishing east of St Croix is 1,000s of feet deep – impossible to snorkel for conch there.
What this means, in the end, is that there is (almost) no Queen Conch fishery in U.S. Federal waters.
In regards to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where conch harvest is managed by the territorial agencies; “Commercial landings of queen conch meat from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas/St. John (territorial waters) and St. Croix (federal and territorial waters) in 2019 was 160,000 [individual conch] and were valued at $1 million according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database.”
The latest NOAA Fisheries report states clearly:
“According to the 2009 stock assessment queen conch are overfished, but are not subject to overfishing based on 2019 catch data.” [This reflects only conch fisheries in US and US Territorial waters, but not other nations and islands.]
Not all conch fishery scientists agree with the study relied upon by NOAA Fisheries [repeated link] – University of Puerto Rico’s Richard Appeldoorn, a fisheries biologist, said “My view of the status is not nearly as dire as the report makes out” and called for better, local-knowledge surveys. “Mauro Gongora of the Belize Fisheries Department pointed out that 15,000 people in his country benefit from conchs, especially in small coastal fishing villages, and that the conch population there is reproducing well. “We’re making a lot of effort to manage the conch as best we can, because we recognize the importance of this fishery.”” [ source ]
If that is the case – basically there are no conch being harvested in U.S. federal waters, and they are not currently being over-fished anywhere in the United States, and other countries and islands have a different take on the situation— why is NOAA Fisheries proposing to list them under the Endangered Species Act?
The major concern is about Queen Conch in the Bahamas where the study was done. In the Bahamas, citizens can virtually harvest as many mature conch as they wish (”The shell must have a well developed flaring lip. This is a sign of maturity.”). And, in actual practice, since juvenile conch have nearly as much meat as fully mature breeding-age conch, immature conch are harvested and eaten locally. And this they do, on a massive scale (personal experience).
Foreigners who cruise the Bahamas in their sailboats, sportfishers and yachts are allowed to have six conch onboard at any one time. From personal experience, this means that sailors, cruisers, sportfishermen can harvest as many mature conch as they wish, having just enough onboard for lunch or dinner at a time. This rule only prevents foreigners from commercial harvest of conch.
My crew certainly enjoyed conch fritters and conch chowder cooked by my wife many times. While snorkeling and fishing with a Hawaiian sling or a pole spear is hard work, our teenaged son (who later became Co-Captain) kept us well-supplied with lobster and fish. Conching, on the other hand, is easy, all one needs to do is snorkel over the shallow bottom, keep one’s eyes sharp for the conch, which are often camouflaged with sea growth on their back, and pick them up.
It is unknown many conch are harvested in the Bahamas each year, as much of it is consumed locally or sold casually. But data from the Bahamian government shows that in 2018/2019 into 2020, exports of conch meat totaled over half a million pounds that was valued at almost 5 million dollars.
The government of the Bahamas, alarmed by the recent scientific studies, pledged as early as 2019 to end the export of conch and enact tighter conch harvest regulations. One press notice stated:
Minister of Agriculture Michael Pintard advised yesterday that there will be a ban on the export of conch from The Bahamas by 2022.
“…We also signaled to the public, met with exporters and indicated that we are going to end the export of conch and we have over the last two years, going into the third year, gradually decreased the conch quota.”
“By 2022, there will be zero exports of conch from the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and tourists can no longer harvest conch in Bahamian waters and consume.”
“It will not be a part of the bag or marine resources that they are able to catch in Bahamians water.”
What are the current regulations as of today?
If you have every visited the Bahamas and sought information on official rules and regulations, you will appreciate that discovering today’s situation is not easy. Even though the Bahamian Minister of Agriculture said in 2020 that “[by 2022] tourists can no longer harvest conch in Bahamian waters and consume.” Current advice to foreign boaters still allows conching for consumption and tourists are allowed to return to the U.S. with up to ten pounds of conch meat.
I emailed a specialist on the issue last week, Martha H. Davis, who is a scientist with Community Conch which researches and advocates for the restoration of conch stocks in the Bahamas and a co-author on the study that has kicked up so much fuss. Her reply is here:
“As of May 2022, we were told that the export of conch has currently ended but because the exporters and the fishermen want that. [ meaning not ended by government regulation.] The end of export is part of the draft fisheries regs and will not be illegal unless it is passed through that process. There is no schedule for approval of the draft Fisheries Resource Regulations and our contact at the Department of Marine Resources has no idea what will happen.“
Situation?… promises and intent at some level but no laws have yet been changed and no new laws are being enforced. Note that fishery enforcement is generally a difficult issue in the Bahamas with so many outlying islands and very few enforcement officers.
Simultaneously, this news item is published October 2022:
“FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA — For the first time in three years, residents and visitors converged on McClean’s Town East Grand Bahama earlier this month to celebrate the 50th Annual Conch Cracking Festival co-sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, Investments & Aviation (MOTIA) under the theme, “50 Years and Still Cracking!”
“The conch-centered event is an annual homecoming festival that started in 1972, where locals and visitors alike engage in friendly competition for an authentically designed conch trophy. The objective of the competition is to extract and clean as many conchs as swiftly possible.”
NOAA Fisheries’ attempt to list the Queen Conch under the ESA is in line with U.S. Fish and Wildife’s statement:
“Although the ESA’s prohibitions regarding listed species apply only to people subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, the ESA can generate conservation benefits such as increased awareness of listed species, research efforts to address conservation needs, or funding for in-situ conservation of the species in its range countries. The ESA also provides for limited financial assistance to develop and manage programs to conserve listed species in foreign countries, encourages conservation programs for such species, and allows for assistance for programs, such as personnel and training.”
As the Queen Conch is already covered under CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], further listing under ESA looks to be just another attempt of a U.S. federal agency to interfere in the affairs of other nations spurred on by concerned activist-scientists from the United States.
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Author’s Comment and personal reflections:
The situation is muddled. There is no doubt that the conch fishery in the Bahamas has been and is being over-fished (I would suggest for at least the last century). There is a huge amount pressure from outside of the nations and territories which have conch fisheries to restrict conch harvest and in some cases, to end conch harvest altogether. Yet in the Bahamas, conch is a national treasure, a way of life, and an iconic local food. The 400,000 Bahamians are not going to give up conching and eating conch, nor will out-islanders give up harvesting conch as a food source and as a cash-crop for sale to the population centers of Nassau and Freeport and the Bahamian tourist trade.
My son passed through the Bahamas two years ago with a crew of five 20-something-year-old sailing captains, spent two weeks on one of the out-islands waiting for the perfect weather to run from the Bahamas directly to Puerto Rico under sail the whole way (a rare weather condition). Local fishermen invited he and his pals to go out conching with them one day in the small shallow bay inside of the barrier reef. The young men, with masks and snorkels, held onto a rope towed behind the small outboard-powered boat, spread out along the length of the rope. As each spotted a conch, they would drop off, swim down, pick up the conch, and when they re-surfaced, the boat would make a wide loop back to them, the conch would be tossed in the passing boat, and the lad would grab the rope once more. The fisherman’s goal, for this few hours of conching, was to collect 200 conch. The fisherman was disappointed when the total catch for three hours was only 150. Three hours, one tiny bay, 150 conch. Rinse and repeat thousands and thousands of times on hundreds of islands (700 islands and 2,400 cays).
In our many voyages passing through the Bahamas, both north-to-south and south-to-north, we never failed to harvest and eat conch and never visited a restaurant which didn’t have several conch dishes on the menu. Nor did we ever visit an island without huge piles of discarded conch shells (see the image at the top of the essay) – not even on uninhabited islands.
In the end, I think that the Bahamian Queen Conch fishery is over-fished, but doubt that this threatens the conch or spells extinction in the present. I also believe that NOAA Fisheries is being pressure by activists scientists into obligating the United States to interfere in the internal affairs of the Bahamas.
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