A mission to save the queen conch
The Bahamas queen conch, a flamboyant slug whose sunset shell has come to be as much of a calling card for the islands’ easy breezy charm as a staple in its economy, is in deep trouble.
In a new study based on a decade of surveys, researchers at Community Conch, a Bahamian nonprofit, and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium found that in just 10 to 15 years, rapidly shrinking numbers may no longer be able to support commercial fishing in the Bahamas. Herds of conchs that once crowded into seagrass meadows and shallow waters as recently as the 1990s are now so overfished that only young conch can be found, and in much lower numbers.
“This is years of data that very clearly show serial depletion,” said Andrew Kough, a Shedd larval expert and co-author of the study published in the journal Fisheries Science & Aquaculture.
“Every single survey we’ve repeated the story is the same,” he said. “We find fewer and fewer conch. And they’re getting younger.”
Losing the fishery would be a major blow not just to the nation’s economy, but its cultural identity. The queen conch is embedded in island life, from roadside conch stands to shell-topped fences. While annual exports to the United States only average between $2 million and $3 million, within the islands it fuels culinary tourism, feeds its citizens and is a source of national pride.
“We have to make it clear this is not an ‘if’ the species will disappear if we don’t act. It’s when,” said Eric Carey, executive director of the Bahamas National Trust.
For the last six or so years, the Trust has waged a national campaign to save the conch in the Bahamas, one of the few countries that still has a substantial population. So Carey said he was not surprised by the dire findings. Working with scientists, the Trust came up with a suite of recommendations to help protect the species, including ending exports. Other suggestions include changing the definition of legal catches to better reflect mature conchs, doing more to protect breeding and feeding grounds, and improving anti-poaching efforts. Those recommendations are now under review by the government, Carey said, but could face opposition.
“Conch is a very difficult fishery to make conservation decisions about politically because so many people depend on conch,” he said. “A closed season or limiting the size and putting up restrictions are obviously going to get pushback. “
For the study, researchers analyzed survey results from 2007 to 2017 at 42 spots around the islands. They looked at both the number and age of conchs, and then compared the results to surveys dating back to 1987. They found that the number and age declined precipitously in waters regularly fished and fell in direct proportion to the amount of fishing. In one area off Cape Eleuthera, researcher Allan Stoner returned to a spot he’d surveyed in 1993 and found an alarming 80 percent decline.
“It’s a story of fishing pressure shaping and reshaping a population and causing it to go into decline,” Kough said.
It’s also a story that should be familiar to Floridians. The Sunshine State once had its own healthy population of conchs. But by the 1980s, overfishing had nearly wiped them out. The U.S. outlawed taking conch, yet three decades later they have yet to recover, providing a grim example to Bahamians if they wait too long.
“We refer them to what happened across the Gulf Stream in Florida where 30 or so years later there are still not any viable harvests of conch,” he said.
While they bristle at regulations, even some fishermen believe rules need to change.
Ty Hepburn, who’s been buying conch in the Bahamas for 20 years, said fishermen frequently bring him young conch he refuses to buy. He agrees that having the conch brought ashore in their shells to track size is needed, and even agrees with closing fishing for part of the year.
“We are willing to do what they are saying because some of the people are bringing in juveniles and we are trying to get people to stop doing that,” he said. “They should know better.”
Kough believes there’s still hope for the conchs. If managed properly, populations could rebound in marine preserves. While isolated, large numbers can also still be found in remote waters. A recent study that looked at populations across the Caribbean found isolated groups could in fact flourish, he said. But more aggressive measures must be taken to protect them.
In the study, Kough, Stoner and co-author Martha Davis suggested changes that echo many of the Trust’s suggestions but also suggest ending diving using air-compressors attached to a hose, or hookahs, a common practice in the islands.
One of the biggest obstacles remains enforcement, said Agnessa Lundy, the Trust’s marine science officer who managed the Conchservation campaign. The government agency in charge of catching poachers and ensuring conchs meet size limits and other laws is severely underfunded, she said.
“If you have a police officer without a gun, that’s pretty much what’s happening with the Department of Marine Resources. We have officers without boats,” she said. “They need resources so the agencies can do their jobs. They need officers, they need to be trained and they need a boat. Simple things.”
Carey believes the government will decide on the recommendations sooner rather than later because the administration is midway through its five-year term, and less constrained by political pressure.
“We’re hoping as our policy makers think about it, they ask themselves this question: Can you imagine the Bahamas without conch?” he said. “The answer is no.”