Hurricanes deal further blow to Caribbean conch fisheries

Published on
September 28, 2017

A video circulating on social media suggests that hundreds of conchs in Bahamian waters were killed when Hurricane Irma struck that country in early September.

Shelley Cant, director of science and policy at the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) said the exact location of the video could not be verified, but that storms like Irma could cause the type of die-off seen in its contents.

“Previous hurricanes like [the 2008 hurricane] Ike, etc, have had reports of extensive washed up conchs onto sand banks. Hurricane Irma was certainly no different,” Cant said.

The impact of recent category 4 and 5 hurricanes on the region's conchs is yet to be fully known, but will likely make efforts to preserve the Caribbean's conch population more difficult.  The BNT has been engaged in a conch conservation project to protect the important dwindling conch fisheries, as has several research organizations including the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Smithsonian's Marine Conservation Program.

A recent Miami Herald story noted, “Conchs used to be prevalent in Florida, too. But decades of overfishing nearly wiped them out. In the mid 1980s the U.S. banned their harvest to save what was left. Yet more than three decades later, they still have not recovered in Florida waters, an inauspicious sign for the Caribbean.”

The Herald story also noted that conchs in Bahamian waters “once gathered in vast herds along miles of flats and seagrass meadows,” but “in recent years...those herds have thinned considerably.”  

Cant told SeafoodSource that the Bahamian government had considered a closed season for conch fishing, but this was problematic. 

“There have been discussions on other management options but enforcing a shell thickness may be our best option, as a closed season would need to be at the time of other closed seasons and fishermen were not so happy about that,” Cant said.

A proposal that only conch whose shell lip's thickness measures half an inch, indicating it is mature, should be harvested, has been put forward, Cant said.

“But that will also mean it would be mandatory to land the shells,” Cant said, in order to measure their thickness.

Besides inflicting damage on the Caribbean conch population, Hurricane Irma will also make it more difficult for the BNT to get funding for its work. 

“Most of our campaign is funded by Bahamian companies. When a major hurricane hits, all funds get re-directed, and for good reason,” Cant said. “The BNT has learnt that we absolutely must refrain from discussing issues about wildlife when people are in crisis mode and have lost everything. It is simply insensitive. We have to wait for communities to begin the rebuild process on those islands, [and] a more or less 'work as usual' attitude is restored. Depending on the devastation, this can be months.” 

Reporting from the Caribbean

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