August 4, 2020

‘Conched’ out. The ‘dire’ state’ of the TCI’s most iconic product


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By Gemma Handy From TC Weekly News

IT’S a national symbol and has been a lynchpin of the ’s tourism industry for decades. But the country could be in danger of losing its most iconic product – and second biggest export – unless drastic steps are taken to combat plummeting populations of conch in the region.

That’s the stark warning following a recent study of the waters around the Bahamas which found the neighbouring nation could lose its conch industry in as little as a decade without urgent action to address overfishing.

Scientists measured more than 3,000 queen conch at 42 sites across the Bahamas between 2009 and 2017 and published their findings in January.

Stocks were so low the researchers urged Bahamian authorities to end all exports – and even implement a total ban on conch fishing for a minimum of five years.

“You could copy and paste their findings and the same thing would apply to TCI,” said Kathleen Wood, of Providenciales-based SWA Environmental.

Statistics gathered in the TCI from 2013 to 2014 revealed adult conch density to be as low as 14 per 2.5 acres, far below the level needed for them to breed successfully, Wood said.

“Even before hurricane Irma, we knew the situation was dire; the storm would have exacerbated that further. And nothing has changed in terms of fishing pressure,” she explained.

Unlike the Bahamas, the TCI does have an annual three-month ‘closed’ season on exports from mid-July. 

But overall regulations fall far short of what is required to protect its cherished conch, Wood continued.

“None of the regulations are biologically based; they should just trash them all. The closed season is not really closed because you can still fish, and it’s not even in line with when conchs are laying their eggs, which is March to July,” she said.

“Plus, fishermen are allowed to fish at spawning aggregates which is absolutely the worst thing to do; conchs go to the same place year after year to mate so this means they all get fished out.”

Wood said a thorough, post-hurricane survey is vital to assess current stocks.

“Exports should not be happening right now and local consumption alone is more than should be allowed. There needs to be a proper closed season that includes local consumption too.”

The trade of queen conch has been under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1992 which requires certain action, including a closed season.

But some environmentalists feel the TCI plays mere lip service to this with conch’s closed season dates chosen to avoid running concurrently with the lobster closed season which is from March 31 to mid-August.

Information on conch numbers, along with details of plans to better protect the species, was not forthcoming from the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) despite repeated requests over several weeks. 

But anecdotal evidence from everyone from scuba divers to restaurateurs revealed fears about conch’s welfare to be widespread.
“We used to see way more conch in the sandy flats at West Caicos,” the owner of one diving school told the Weekly News.

“Eighteen years ago it wasn’t uncommon to see as many as 25 eagle rays together. We haven’t seen that in years – and one of the theories is they’re not feeding in those areas as much because of the conch decline.”

It’s not just eagle rays which feed on conch. They are a key food source for loggerhead turtles, nurse sharks, spiny lobsters and more. Conch also plays a valuable ecological role eating algae on seagrass, preventing it from becoming smothered.

Economic valueA prime export, second only to liquor, conch accounted for 11 percent of the TCI’s total exports in 2017, bringing in $1.16 million.

But its true economic value lies in the meat consumed locally, rather than overseas, said John Macdonald, owner of Da Conch Shack restaurant.

“Each conch exported contributes almost nothing to the local economy while each one consumed on island reverberates throughout the community, from waiters and chefs to taxi drivers,” he said.

“Conch is part of what makes TCI unique, along with our reefs and beaches. It’s something tourists want to try; it’s a delicacy and should be embraced as such.”

Macdonald said even his own suppliers were having to head out further to find the molluscs than in recent years.

“It’s not an infinite resource; we can’t supply New York and Miami. We don’t sell our beaches so why our conch?” he said, adding: “Conch is sometimes taken for granted but it’s unique, it’s special and part of our wonderful ‘beautiful by nature’ legacy.”

Annual conch exports can be as high as 300,000 pounds, with local consumption even higher at 560,000 pounds, said Don Stark, of the TC Reef Fund.

Combined, that easily tops the maximum sustainable yield previously estimated at just 600,000 lbs.

“Ideally they should close the conch fishery entirely for a year or two; it’s that bad that even a proper closed season wouldn’t be enough, from what I’ve been told,” he said.

“We do have various no-fishing areas but I often see boats out there early in the morning, poaching from the national park so they can make a fresh conch salad for their guests.”

Altering restrictions on the size of conchs that can be harvested would be a positive step, Wood said. Instead of relying on shell thickness and meat weight to determine a conch’s sexual maturity, a more reliable indicator would be measuring the thickness of the shell lip.

Conch should only be caught whole and with a lip width of at least 15mm, she explained. 

This would allow the creatures more time to reproduce; conchs take more than four years to reach sexual maturity.

And even then, they only mate when there are so many they’re literally “knocking into each other”, said Dr Andy Kough, one of the scientists involved in the Bahamas study.

“Throughout the archipelago we found higher stocks in more remote areas, showing a link between conch decline and increased fishing,” Dr Kough, research biologist at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, told the Weekly News.

“What really shocked me was visiting some very remote sites and seeing so many conch, just like all the stories we’d heard from older guys there about how you used to be able to wade into the ocean and pick conchs up.

“Sadly those areas are far and few between, thanks to years of heavy exploitation. Seeing the disparity between those and the average site was quite sobering.”

The scientists’ report – published in the journal ‘Reviews in Fisheries Science and Aquaculture’ – acknowledges loss of income to local fisherfolk if their recommendations are taken up. 

But they warn, without significant measures to reduce fishing pressure, the “viable fishery might only last another 10 to 15 years” which would be “devastating culturally, economically and ecologically”.

Wood, former director of TCI’s Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA), agrees.

“Conch is extremely valuable to the TCI, both culturally and economically. If we don’t act now our conch fishery will collapse,” she said, pointing out that a 30-year moratorium on conch harvesting in Florida had done little to bring numbers back to a commercially sustainable level.

“Everywhere conchs have disappeared from, it’s the same,” she added. “The sad reality is, once they’ve gone they don’t come back.”

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