The Q­ueen Conch:  Endangered Species?

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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John Hultquist
January 15, 2023 10:21 pm

Thanks, very interesting.

being pressure by activists scientists into obligating the United States to interfere in the internal affairs of ” . . . insert a name

The US Government has a reputation for interfering in the lives of its own citizens and elsewhere.
Yet, the leaders are some of the most irresponsible people to be found. Hank Sr’s song comes to mind.

Ron Long
Reply to  John Hultquist
January 16, 2023 1:16 am

The worst issue with the term “…activists scientists…” is that their fanatic views means they are no longer actual scientists, instead they are eco-warriors with an agenda.

guidvce4
Reply to  Ron Long
January 16, 2023 4:35 am

Exactly what I was thinking as I read through the article and came across that term “…activists scientists…”. The word “activist” totally discredits whatever cachet they hoped to attach to their “scientist” title. As it always does. Add a “Ph.D” behind any names involved and it just drops down to where the conch live and below.

Robertvd
Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 16, 2023 11:14 am

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

ATheoK
Reply to  Robertvd
January 18, 2023 10:12 pm

They’ve already reached their perfidious perdition and are trying to force us to live there too.

marlene
January 15, 2023 10:31 pm

In America, WEF and the other globalists not only want our farmland, for themselves, they want the fish in the seas. What I don’t understand is why, when there’s notice of the “extinction” of fish (which I doubt is anything but political BS), they don’t just ban commercial fishing. Then local fisherman can continue to fish, for themselves and their nation, and export what’s left. Both the land and the seas belong to the people, not the wealthy globalist hoarders.  

Bryan A
Reply to  marlene
January 15, 2023 10:58 pm

Federally protecting a non endangered species is practically un-conch-inable

Gums
Reply to  marlene
January 16, 2023 7:57 am

Salute!

Seems to me that in the 90’s that Florida banned commercial fishing for red drum, aka “redfish”, and sharply limited recreational size and possession numbers. Redfish were going the way the cod did due to overfishing and technology that dramatically increased the catch. We have still not recovered to where we were in the mid-80’s. And at least they have not become extinct.

I am all for protecting the “natives'” rights to catch and consume the local fauna with possibly a few regulations. Hell, it’s one reason we moved and settled here! But if we let the stock diminish to a certain point, it almost enters a death spiral as did the cod fishery. One way to preserve the local folks’ rights is to limit commercial fishing/hunting, maybe not a complete ban, but look at and emulate successful programs such as we see with lobster (both Maine type and the spiney ones we have down in Florida and Gulf), stone crabs,blue crabs, scallops, deer, bear, waterfowl and so forth.

Gums sends…

Gums
Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 16, 2023 2:21 pm

Salute!
Only tried the conch stew once when with a friend in the Bahamas and after hours of prep an such, it was tough and not all that tasty.
However, it could be a staple in the islands, but I cannot see it a delicacy in French cafe like those snails they eat, he heh.

Otoh, we Gulf residents enjoy super tasty and tender fish and mollusks that our visitors relish, as we do. Just try our snappers, grouper, yellowfin tuna and three or more varieties of shrimp. A few places still have fresh oysters and steamed blue crabs. They are most frequented by local natives.

The various states have done decent jobs with limiting the commercial and recreational “harvest” of the critters, and there could be some real dedicated folks living off the land, but I agree. 90% of people in the U.S. will die if the electricity goes off for more than 6 months.

Hope the shell fish prosper in the Bahamas and further south.

Gums sends…

ATheoK
Reply to  Gums
January 18, 2023 10:38 pm

Florida banned commercial fishing for red drum, aka “redfish”, and sharply limited recreational size and possession numbers. Redfish were going the way the cod did due to overfishing and technology that dramatically increased the catch.”

Hem hem hem…

Some Florida fish species were badly overfished, mostly by small commercial fishermen netting all fish they could reach.
After which they discard undersized legal species and all, usually dead, protected or regulated species; lobster, all snapper species, groupers, Spanish mackerel, flounder, red drum and speckled trout (weakfish).
Some commercials caught large numbers of fish, then sorted/graded through the catch keeping the biggest often female fish and discarding the excess catch.

A major contributor were several cold fronts that killed millions of red drum and speckled trout from south Texas, along the Gulf Coast and most of Florida. Red Drum were plentiful until they were killed by cold fronts. Manatees also suffered.

Florida enacted the anti-net laws and commercial restrictions and shrank the catches of ordinary fishermen.

Unsurprisingly, fecund fast growing fish rapidly recovered.
Slower growing fish, e.g., Red Drum, grouper and flounder took much longer.

marlene
January 15, 2023 10:37 pm

In America, WEF and the other globalists not only want our farmland, for themselves, they want the fish in the seas. What I don’t understand is why, when there’s notice of the “extinction” of fish (which I doubt is anything but political BS), they don’t just ban monopolistic commercial fishing. Then local fisherman can continue to fish, for themselves & their own cities & nation, and export what’s left. Both the land and the seas belong to the people, not the wealthy globalist hoarders.  

marlene
January 15, 2023 11:01 pm

In America, WEF and the other globalists not only want our farmland, for themselves, they want the fish in the seas. What I don’t understand is why, when there’s notice of the “extinction” of fish (which I doubt is anything but political BS), they don’t just ban monopolistic commercial fishing. Then local fisherman can continue to fish, for themselves & their own cities & nation, and export what’s left. Both the land and the seas belong to the people, not the wealthy globalist hoarders.  

Bryan A
Reply to  marlene
January 15, 2023 11:30 pm

Why posted 3 times?

Nevada_Geo
Reply to  Bryan A
January 16, 2023 1:39 am

It seems these posts multiply almost as fast as the Queen Conch.

DonM
Reply to  Bryan A
January 16, 2023 2:34 pm

4 would really be over-kill and would lose the intended reader.

Peta of Newark
January 16, 2023 3:32 am

When the prospect of eating ‘ land bugs’ ever arises, frequently nowadays, the universal response is ‘yuck’ ‘gross’ ‘oh god I’m never gonna eat that’

Yet when it comes to ‘sea bugs’ – they become expensive and sought-after delicacies.
What gives?

I will admit that the little ‘pica pica’ inside us all is at work there….
Quote from random search:”Queen conch is a good low-fat source of protein. It is high in vitamins E and B12, magnesium, selenium, and folate, but is also high in cholesterol. ##

But don’t land bugs have those things in them as well?

## Not bad nutrient profile, it’s got B Vitamin, Selenium and Magnesium. Pretty epic really but the search didn’t say how much.
Shame there’s no fat in there so here comes diabetes and bang goes your kidneys. Good job we have two of them innit. But only one heart.
(What’s that you say about climate science?)

Looking at those nutriments, maybe Brandon should eat some though I suspect it’s too late for him.
But those things are all as cheap as chips, even from your local discount store and at least then you know how much you’re getting.

“nowt as queer as fowk”

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 17, 2023 8:56 pm

How similar is it to abalone? I once tried some of that, bought fresh at the Wharf in DC, and cooked according to the best recipe I could find. It was revolting. And I love mollusks (and seafood) in general – I even love terrestrial snails, i.e. escargot. Just curious.

spetzer86
January 16, 2023 4:11 am

I was on a dive trip through the Bahamas and we passed a boat harvesting the Conch. I had been happy to spot the little trails the shells leave as the Conch slide along the sea floor as there was always a big shell to see at the end of the trail, but it would also make them easy prey for a boat full of fishermen.

Bob
January 16, 2023 1:52 pm

Here is the thing, are conch endangered, are there limits already in place, are the limits reasonable, is it the U.S.’s business to regulate other nations, are there other means of addressing this perceived problem, are conch endangered in the Bahamas, if not why not if they have historically been over fished for so long, do we think the people in the Bahamas are so stupid that they will intentionally destroy a source of income? There are plenty more questions but this is enough to get us started. One last thing, the U.S. is getting too big for it’s britches and needs to show some self control.

ScarletMacaw
January 16, 2023 4:17 pm

The taking of queen conch was banned in Florida not because queen conch was endangered but because it was the primary food of the endangered horse conch.

I remember when the ban was first in place. I snorkeled a lot in the Keys in those days. Early on there were zillions of small queen conchs crawling along the bottom. On my next trip there were zillions of medium-sized ones. The next trip after that was a disappointment, there were no queen conchs. The sudden population explosion was swiftly followed by a massive disease outbreak. I guess every good deed ends in disaster.

Yooper
January 17, 2023 5:41 pm

I have to wonder why no enterprising capitalist hasn’t made a business of repurposing all those conch shells into home decor items or, Gaia forbid, planters for house plants.

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