Conch Republic

Dear Editor,

Key West in the Florida Keys was/is referred to as the Conch Republic because there was at one time an abundance of conch. Despite the fact that there has been a total ban on the removal of conch from the Florida Keys for almost 40 years, there has been little increase in the population in the meantime, as a certain density of conch is required in order for them to reproduce.

There is a cut in the Exuma Cays known as Conch Cut; there is a bay on the west side of Eleuthera known as Conch Bay, and I am sure that there are many other such spots throughout The Bahamas which are known as ‘conch this’ or ‘conch that’. The names were, no doubt, bestowed on those areas because at one time there was an abundance of conch. Today there is no abundance but these areas still retain their names as relics of yesteryear.

Ten years ago I was in Crooked Island, and we wanted to get a few conchs to go hand-line fishing. You jumped overboard in the bight between Acklins and Crooked Island and almost landed on top of a dozen conchs, and in two minutes, you were back in the boat and headed for fishing. In 2018, I was in Crooked Island with my brother and went to the very same area in the bight, and after being towed for more than an hour, I managed to find two conchs. Anyone that you speak with who goes diving in The Bahamas, has a similar story.

During my brief time in the House of Assembly in 2012 to 2017, I raised the issue of the depletion of conch on no less than three occasions and was rebuffed on each occasion by the then minister, suggesting that he needed some scientific evidence to support the view that the conch population was being threatened, notwithstanding that he had before him several reports from groups that had been following the drastic decline in the number of conch for years. Another member of the previous administration even suggested that I didn’t know what I was talking about because of all the conch in Conch Cut.

The issue, however, that I felt needed immediate attention was the legal export of conch, which I felt should be banned immediately. At that time, I understood that the limit on the export was 500,000 pounds per annum, but subsequently discovered that the limit was at some point increased to 650,000 pounds, which translates into more than 2 million conchs for export each and every year. That doesn’t take into account the millions of conchs which are consumed locally every year or exported illegally.

You do not need scientific evidence to support the view that this uncontrolled killing of conch will, in short order, destroy the conch population. Common sense will tell you that. It is said, however, that common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden but let us demonstrate that at least, in this one instance, common sense does indeed grow in every Bahamian’s garden and that Bahamians are on one accord and will demand action by the government to, in the first instance, ban immediately the export of conch.

Other steps to protect the conch population, such as a closed season, banning the removal of conch by foreign boat owners, etc. can be the subject of further discussion with interested parties. But surely as regards the export of conch, there should be no need for further discussion. If government is concerned that people may be out of work if a complete ban is placed on the export of conch, they may wish to stop and contemplate how many more thousands of persons will be out of work when conch are no longer available and all of the persons operating conch salad stands, restaurants, etc. are joining the unemployment line.

There is also a need for all Bahamians to understand that our conch are a natural resource. They provide employment for thousands of people, but if they cannot be replaced at a faster pace, than they are removed, then some constraints have to be imposed. Unfortunately, like in so many instances, we fail to observe the laws that are in place. In order to protect the conch, there are size limits, but there are unquestionably more juvenile conch destroyed every day than mature conch. At one time one conch was more than enough for one bowl of conch salad, whereas today you will, in many instances, require three.

Government finally received a wake-up call when a report appeared in The Nassau Guardian on January 7, 2019 headed, “Conch fishing could disappear in 15 years” and then was followed by articles in National Geographic and the Miami Herald.

The response from the minister of agriculture and marine resources, Michael Pintard, in a statement dated January 13, was, in my view, wholly inadequate, primarily because we all know how governments operate. As I mentioned earlier, there should be no need for a debate on the immediate ban on the export of conch.

Instead this is the essence of the minister’s response: “The question is, to what extent has our conch stock been depleted, and over what period of time? Secondly, what kind of harvesting methods (use of compressors, harvesting of immature conch, illegal poaching, etc.) have led to this significant reduction in the conch population? Thirdly, what steps must be taken to address the growing concerns about pressures our marine products and environment are under as a result of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in Bahamian waters”.

Is there really a need to talk about it for another year so that we can mull over the existing reports of how the population has been depleted, which illegal methods contribute to the reduction in the stock and what steps we need to take to address the issue and meanwhile another 2 million conchs, many of which are no doubt immature, are killed for export?

I call on the minister, or whomever is responsible for making a decision, to demonstrate leadership and place an immediate ban on the export of conch. Do not fiddle while conch disappear!!

Richard Lightbourn

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