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Conched Out

The clock is running out on TCI’s conch fishery.
By Kathleen Wood

Earlier in 2019, research spanning decades in the Bahamas concluded that without significant intervention and changes to fishing policy, the Bahamian queen conch Lobatus gigas fishery will collapse within 10–15 years (Allan W Stoner, Davis, & Kough, 2019). Conch populations in legal fishing grounds in the Bahamas have declined by as much as 90%. Even more alarming are declines in protected areas, where conch are aging and dying out, as younger recruits are not moving in to replace them.

The Bahamas are just the latest in a series of conch industry collapses that have been occurring across the species’ range for the past few decades. In Florida, the conch fishery collapsed more than 40 years ago and has still not recovered. In 1992, conch was listed under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) due to concerns regarding stock depletion from overfishing and inadequate management. Nevertheless, stocks continued to decline and by 2004, trade was suspended in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago, based on evidence of declining stock and/or lack of effective management in those countries.

Conch is particularly vulnerable to overexploitation, due to its slow mobility, habitat in shallow, accessible water and relatively slow growth and reproductive cycles. Under CITES, a country such as the Turks & Caicos Islands can only export conch if they can demonstrate that such export is not detrimental to the survival of the species (Theile, 2005; Truelove et al., 2017). TCI can no longer honestly make a no-detriment statement to CITES.

Conch is particularly vulnerable to overexploitation, due to its slow mobility, habitat in shallow, accessible water and relatively slow growth and reproductive cycles.

The Bahamas findings should set off alarm bells in the Turks & Caicos, where similar patterns of declining conch stocks over the past 10 years indicate that TCI’s conch fishery is also in peril. Since 2008, TCI’s conch catch has been reduced by more than 50%. Once-abundant, shallow water stocks have been all but fished out and fisherfolk are now forced to move into deeper water, further offshore, in order to find enough conch to meet a burgeoning demand. Unlike the Bahamas, TCI does not have meticulously recorded data over the same time frame from which to draw conclusive evidence. Unfortunately, this lack of data has been used as an excuse to maintain the status quo; however, business as usual, at this time when resolute action is needed, will likely result in the collapse and loss of TCI’s iconic fishery in a relatively short period of time. The region is full of examples that serve as harbingers of this fate.

In 2006, a sweeping assessment of the world’s fisheries stocks revealed a disturbing trend: 63% of the world’s fisheries were being over-fished (Worm et al., 2009). Six years later, the trend was worsening. Assessed were 4,713 fisheries worldwide, representing 78% of the world’s fish catch. Of these, only 32% were found to be in good biological condition (Costello et al., 2016). Both studies specifically concluded that the “business as usual” approach to fisheries management was largely culpable for global fisheries collapse and that without significant alterations to the status quo, the trend of collapse will undoubtedly continue.

Numbers don’t lie
As with many of the world’s collapsing fisheries, the TCI’s management of the conch fishery relies on a quota system, based on the determination of maximum sustained yield (MSY). In other words, each year a number is determined that, in theory, allows for the maximum amount of conch that can be taken and naturally replaced through breeding. The use of MSY has been the standard for most of the world’s fisheries for decades; however, a comprehensive study of fisheries in ten large marine ecosystems determined that at fishing rates equal to 90% of MSY, at least 50% of targeted fish stocks were collapsing (Worm et al., 2009). TCI has been fishing conch at rates above 90% MSY for at least 15 years.

Even in an ideal world, where MSY is accurately determined with data from visual surveying of conch stocks in the field, fishermen cannot necessarily safely remove close to the MSY figure and be assured that similar numbers will be harvestable into the future. TCI does not have accurate visual survey data, although a partial survey was conducted in 2012–2014, which suggested that TCI’s MSY for conch hovers around 600,000 pounds. Nevertheless, TCI established a quota of 820,000 pounds of landed, unprocessed meat, including 500,000 pounds for export and 320,000 pounds for local consumption.

A recent study looking at fisheries landings in TCI found that actual conch catch is at least two times higher than what is being reported (Ulman, Burke, Hind, Ramdeen, & Zeller, 2016), and that local consumption alone probably equates to the entire quota. This stark reality indicates that conch in TCI has been over-fished for several years. Although many people in TCI blame the decline of conch stocks on hurricanes, the data demonstrate that over-fishing is the more likely culprit.

The problems with policy
TCI currently regulates the conch fishery under the Fisheries Protection Ordinance (FPO) and National Parks Ordinance (NPO) in several ways:
• A quota system limits the amount of allowable catch.
• A closed season for export reduces demand from
July 15–November 15.
• Restrictions on size (total shell length of 7 inches, uncleaned meat weight of 8 ounces and filet weight of 4 ounces) reduces the taking of juveniles.
• Designation of closed areas protects critical juvenile habitats and areas for spawning and reproduction.
• A prohibition against using scuba and other
artificial breathing gear limits the amount of conch that can be harvested at depth.

While TCI’s laws and policies to regulate conch were considered standard when they were developed many years ago, as with most dated fisheries policies they have not been sufficient to prevent stocks from declining.

The quota system is inherently flawed because it doesn’t take into consideration the myriad environmental factors that affect species populations. Healthy habitats, relationships with other species, and protection during vulnerable breeding and juvenile life stages are essential in determining whether a species thrives or fails. Even when fisheries are well-regulated, with up-to-date stock assessments to determine MSY, many are collapsing.

Quota systems are now considered outdated and ineffective on their own, and contemporary fisheries scientists now propose an ecosystem approach to fisheries and other conservation management. This takes into consideration not only the amount of a species to be harvested, but also the protection of habitat and integration of each species’ unique life history.

The current quota for TCI is arbitrary and is not based on any actual data. Data that has been collected suggests that conch consumed locally are already at or above MSY. How many conch are there in TCI? Where are they breeding? What ages are they? Where are the important juvenile habitats located? We cannot possibly determine how conch can be sustainably harvested without this information.

Closed seasons can be a highly effective means of protecting fisheries stocks and are an important component of an ecosystem approach to management. Typically, a season closes during the targeted species’ breeding season. For TCI’s lobster Panulirus argus fishery, the closed season falls roughly between April and September, which corresponds nicely with the time of year when most lobsters are spawning. The conch closed season from mid-July to mid-November unfortunately does not correspond well with the conch’s breeding patterns, which typically also occur during the months from April to September. Conch are currently being fully harvested during peak breeding season, which can only have extremely detrimental effects on the species’ capacity to replenish itself. Furthermore, TCI’s closed season is only closed to export. We now know that the bulk of TCI’s conch catch goes to local consumption; therefore, a season closed to export alone does little to serve sustainable conch management interests.

Size restrictions are often used in fisheries management to allow species to reach breeding age before they are harvested. The hypothesis is that minimum size restrictions will allow many individuals to make it to reproductive age and thereby replace those harvested. In the case of conch, it has been known for many years that most size measurements cannot be correlated to reproductive maturity (A. Stoner, Mueller, Brown-Peterson, Davis, & Booker, 2012; A. W. Stoner & Ray, 1993). Sexually maturity can be reached when conch are as small or smaller than the seven inches stipulated under TCI law or when they significantly larger. A better estimate of sexual maturity is obtained by measuring shell lip thickness, and research has shown that a conch shell lip with a thickness of 15 mm correlates to a 50% probability that the conch will be sexually mature, with males maturing earlier than females (Allan W Stoner et al., 2019). TCI’s size regulations for queen conch are therefore biologically dubious, and a majority are probably being fished out before they are sexually mature.

Protected areas that are closed to fishing and other harmful activities are critical components of a sensible ecosystem approach to fisheries management. In order to safeguard a species during vulnerable life phases, habitat for juveniles and spawning should be protected. In TCI, only one protected area—the East Harbour Lobster and Conch Reserve, located off South Caicos—has been specifically designated for the conservation of conch. Unfortunately, the designation of this area allows for the harvest of up to 10 conch by an individual for personal consumption (Fisheries Protection Ordinance Regulation 13). This loophole has led to the complete depopulation of conch within the reserve, rendering it practically useless.

Another important site for conch is located between Little Water Cay and Mangrove Cay. This area is an important juvenile habitat for queen conch and densities of up to 1.1/m2 (the highest recorded in TCI) were previously recorded (Pardee, 2008). The dredging of the Leeward Channel and dumping of spoil (Star Island) in the middle of the area has significantly degraded the habitat, and a subsequent recent study recorded densities reduced by a factor of four at this site. The area is also frequented by tour operators and has been further depopulated from illegal souvenir collection by unaware visitors.

Other important sites for queen conch include spawning aggregation areas off Molasses Reef, the Fish Cays and West Sand Spit, and juvenile habitats within tidal creeks on East Caicos. These habitats all remain unprotected and fishing pressure continues, all but ensuring the species’ eventual demise in TCI.

On a positive note, a progressive law under the FPO [Regulation 9(1c)] prohibits the use of scuba or other artificial breathing devices while fishing in TCI. Such prohibition limits the depth at which fishers can catch conch, since they are harvested via free diving. It has long been assumed that TCI’s unreachable “deep water stocks” allowed for the replenishment of shallower fishing areas on the Caicos Banks, and there is likely some veracity to this belief.

Unfortunately, with shallow water stocks now depleted, fisherfolk are venturing into deeper and deeper water in search of conch to supply the country’s hefty demand. Exacerbating the situation is illegal fishing by poachers from nearby Hispaniola. Dominican poachers notoriously use underwater artificial breathing hookah apparatuses, specifically to target the deep-water stocks. These stocks are the last vestiges of the fishery in TCI, and once they have been fished out, no recovery will be possible.

Immediate and decisive action is required to preserve TCI’s iconic conch fishery for future generations.

What can be done?
When this article is published, the conch fishery will be closed to export for the closed season. Prior to the opening of the fishery, several steps should urgently be taken:
1. A comprehensive visual survey should be conducted immediately in order to establish an up-to-date population baseline and stock characteristics.
2. Export should be discontinued until such a time that it can be determined via factual evidence that such export is not detrimental to the species, as per CITES requirements.
3. The closed season should be moved to April 1– August 31 in order to be more in sync with conch’s spawning activities. The closed season should also be closed to local exploitation, so that no conch can be harvested during the closed season at all.
4. New size regulations, which use shell lip thickness (minimum 15mm), rather than overall shell length, should be implemented. The regulations should also require that conch are landed in their shell for enforcement purposes.
5. Spawning aggregation sites and juvenile habitats should be comprehensively identified and protected from exploitation and degradation.
6. Enforcement willingness and capacity to stop illegal poaching and other infractions of regulations must be improved. DECR needs the staff, vessels and willingness to accomplish its mandate.
7. Government should develop economic support incentives for fisherfolk who will be disadvantaged by new policies. This could include alternative employment in infrastructure projects, payment for assistance with visual surveys and other needed scientific research and training for the development of alternative livelihoods.

Queen conch has been a cornerstone of TCI’s economy and culture since Lucayan people arrived on these shores more than 1,000 years ago. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, dried conch was a principal trade good, transported in traditional sailing sloops and sold in nearby Hispaniola. After the advent of flash freezing and cold storage, the industry blossomed into one of the country’s leading exports, contributing millions of dollars annually to TCI’s economy.
TCI’s “business as usual” model for managing conch will result in the collapse of the fishery in a relatively short space of time. Collapsed conch fisheries across the region demonstrate that once conch is fished out, it does not return. TCI’s government and fisheries managers can no longer plead ignorance. We know a crisis is at hand and only immediate and decisive action will protect what is left of TCI’s legendary fishery. We can but hope that this administration will be the one that saves TCI’s conch rather than letting it become a sad and preventable footnote in history. The clock is ticking.

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