Saving the Bahamian queen conch
The research recently published by the Bahamas National Trust and chronicled in several scientific articles, paint a dire picture and a compelling call for broad based action to save the Bahamian queen conch. The facts demonstrate that the harvest and consumption of queen conch are threatening the sustainability of stocks.
As far back as 1996, the University of Miami had launched a three-year study to evaluate conch fishing and produce a management plan for The Bahamas.
Over the next several years The Bahamas established Wetland Care Bahamas and began a program to restore creeks and wetlands throughout the country. The Bahamas established the first in what was intended to become a series of marine protected areas (MPAs) and banned grouper fishing during spawning aggregations.
Wetlands protection was launched to preserve the critical habitat for the marine species during the most vulnerable periods of their life. Grouper spawning aggregations were protected to arrest the documented decline in stocks as a result of fishing pressure during spawning aggregations. The Bahamas is distinguished as the first country in the world to ban commercial fishing for Nassau grouper during spawning aggregations.
Based on the research gathered, it is clear that the MPAs are essential to having sufficient recruitment area for nursery stock and mature marine adults to populate and reproduce. However, even in protected areas the stocks are dwindling at an alarming rate. It is also clear that fishing pressure, negative habits (harvesting juvenile conch), destructive localized disposal methods (killing and cleaning conch in habitats) and development around critical nursery areas, are having a cumulative negative impact, causing a collapse of important near-shore and not-so-near-shore conch populations.
One of the most absorbing and compelling recollections of my time as minister of agriculture and fisheries in the late 1990s is the information gleaned about the state of conch and grouper and the vulnerability our country faced from fishing pressure on these two of our most popular eating species.
Technical advice indicated that a collapse of lobster fishery was not likely, because lobster would become so scares in abundance that it would be uneconomic to continue to fish for them commercially. However, grouper and conch were different. Groupers mate in spawning aggregations and need mass numbers to reproduce and populate, if fishing is to be sustainable. Conch mate sexually and must have physical contact to reproduce. As well, conch need to find each other, in order to make contact. Conch require minimum population densities per unit of sea area in order to mate. They are slow moving and vulnerable throughout every stage of their life to predation in every environment they inhabit.
The challenge The Bahamas faces in mounting a sustained program of action to save its conch stocks is manifested in the loss of continuity in the public sector and lack of focused intra-administration focus. For instance, when the first MPAs were launched, the officer who conducted the public education outreach eventually left the public service. The changes in administrations have shifted the focus of the agenda, to the detriment of the conch. The absence of critical institutional mass at the various levels exposed the policy and technical gaps and left the conch even more vulnerable.
The Bahamas now faces an alarming collapse of conch fishery in important local areas of our country.
The plight of the conch is perhaps more compelling and irrefutable than the grouper. Bahamians eat queen conch in prodigious quantities. There are over 25 species of grouper although the iconic Nassau grouper is the most popular.
What is The Bahamas to do to save the conch and grouper?
The way of life for Bahamians will be forever altered and lessened if conch populations were to collapse. Our culture, cuisine and economy would be changed beyond recognition if we were to permit the collapse of conch fisheries. The effort to prevent this calamity is a national responsibility.
At the very least we should do the following:
• Mount a massive public education campaign to inform the nation about the plight of the conch and other marine species. It is clear that a single minister or successive group of ministers and public officials will not produce the necessary critical mass of attention of focused action required.
• Conch fishing should be banned during the conch mating season.
• All conchs should be landed whole, for inspection to ensure only adult conchs are consumed.
• Mature breeding females should be left at sea to reproduce a greater abundance of eggs to build a more sustainable fishery.
• Where conch stocks are low and the likely collapse of localized fishery evident (such as Conch Sound, Black Point, Mastic Point, Berry Islands), conch fishing should be absolutely banned for a minimum period and aggressive methods employed to restore populations (public education, wetland restoration, habitat protection, recruitment stock enhancement and so forth).
• Detrimental building habits and infrastructure placement, which destroy critical marine habitat, should be eliminated or mitigated, for example placing culvert in creek systems should be a requirement. Public works regulation should enforce the mandate of stopping sewerage and storm water run-off from enriching mangrove estuaries and destroying habitats.
The way of life for thousands of Bahamians is at stake if conch fisheries collapse or continue to be reduced at the alarming rates documented. Action is needed now. The conch cannot wait.
• Earl Deveaux is a former Cabinet minister.