US considers stronger protections for iconic Caribbean conch, raising concern among fishermen | Science

Overfishing could put the conch queen – a large marine snail known for its showy shell and delicious meat – on the path to extinction, US government scientists concluded earlier this year after a comprehensive review of the species. Federal officials are now considering whether to list the Caribbean species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, after finishing collecting public comments on the proposal last week. But fishing communities in several countries oppose the move, worried that such a move could end their ability to export conch meat to the United States, their biggest market.

“We are not convinced that listing the species under the ESA is warranted at this time, or the best option available to protect the species,” Maren Headley, a fisheries scientist at the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism, an intergovernmental organization, told a public conference. hearing held online last month by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Citing “serious concern” about the potential financial impact of listing the species as endangered, she said the goal should be to improve fisheries management.

The queen conch, which lives in salt marshes throughout the Caribbean, has been fished for its meat for centuries. In the Bahamas, where a conch rests atop the country’s coat of arms, large piles of shells are testament to the history and scale of exploitation. “The withdrawal from the world’s largest seagrass ecosystem has been enormous,” says Andrew Kough, a marine biologist at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

The species has few defenses against divers seeking its valuable meat. Some bivalves stay safe by living in remote or deep water. Older individuals, which grow up to 35 centimeters in length, can become camouflaged over time with algae or coral growing on their shells.

Due to overexploitation, conch fishing was banned in Florida in 1975. Population declines followed in other countries, and in 1992 international trade in the species was regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Concerned about continued overharvesting, CITES in 2003 asked nations to ban the import of conch shells from Honduras, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Today, numbers are thin across most of the range, and larvae are not dispersing sufficiently to maintain gene flow between remaining local populations, according to a scientific review completed by NOAA in May. Some populations still reproduce in the Bahamas, Jamaica and a few other locations, but these fisheries are likely to become unsustainable sometime in the next 30 years. If that happens, poaching is likely to worsen and the species will face a “moderate” risk of extinction, NOAA says.

A US designation of the queen conch as endangered would not, by itself, require other nations to act to protect the snail. But NOAA Fisheries notes that a listing could justify blocking imports in the future, potentially increasing incentives to better manage the snail fishery. In 2018, the United States imported $33 million worth of conch meat for fritters, chowder and other dishes. A US listing “sends a clear message that this species is at risk,” said Nick Higgs, a marine biologist at the Cape Eleuthera Institute, a research center in the Bahamas.

Not everyone agrees. “My view of the situation is not nearly as dire as the report shows,” says Richard Appeldoorn, a fisheries biologist at the University of Puerto Rico. He says NOAA’s risk analysis doesn’t take into account the fact that conchs aggregate before mating, meaning a low population density observed in a survey can look deceptively bad. Surveys should note whether conchs mate or have released eggs to give a more accurate picture of the population’s health, he says.

Leveraging local knowledge of conch fishing communities will improve these surveys, Raimundo Espinoza, director of Conservaci√≥n ConCiencia, a non-profit conservation organization in Puerto Rico, said at the hearing. “The best scientists aren’t the best at finding conch,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to advance the collection of data for science.”

Some countries say they are doing their best to manage shellfish responsibly. In the public hearing, Mauro Gongora of the Belize Fisheries Department pointed out that 15,000 people in his country benefit from conch, especially in small coastal fishing villages, and that the conch population there is reproducing well. “We make a big effort to manage the conch as best we can, because we recognize the importance of this fishery.”

But many Caribbean nations lack the regulations or the resources for enforcement, NOAA says. In its review, the agency concluded that more action is needed to halt population decline: “There is very little evidence that regulatory mechanisms will be able to reverse this trend in the foreseeable future.”

At the hearing, Stephen Smikle, director of fisheries in Jamaica, said what is needed is more support from the US government to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated conch fishing. Higgs points out that listing the species as threatened could catalyze such funding. “It suddenly becomes a priority for conservation and rebuilding populations.”

More funding to help hatcheries expand and maximize production could also make a difference, says Kough. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a pretty sore wound. That will help stem the bleeding a bit.” But the only way to repopulate billions of conchs is through natural reproduction, he adds. Ultimately, Kough hopes NOAA will list the species: Fingers crossed that there is an outpouring of public support and creative thinking to help these animals into the future.”

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