Photograph by Mike Theiss, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

A queen conch peers out from its shell. An icon of the Bahamas, conchs numbers are dropping because of overfishing.

Photograph by Mike Theiss, Nat Geo Image Collection

The Bahamas’ iconic conch could soon disappear

Without intervention, the gray slug that carries a bright shell could disappear from some regions.

When you're a conch, mating is better in a group.

In fact, it’s the only way it works. These slow-moving Caribbean sea slugs carry heavy pink and orange shells, which make chasing down mates cumbersome. To be successful, a mating ground must have some 50 or more conchs spawning at once.

But in the Bahamas, where conchs are a vital part of the culture and economy, the slugs are finding it increasingly difficult to reproduce. Overfishing and loose regulations have pushed many pockets of conch communities below the critical level needed for mating, according to recent scientific surveys. That means conchs in those regions may eventually die of old age without reproducing, leading to the demise of the conch fishery. One recently-published paper predicts overfishing could spell an end to Bahamian conchs in as little as 10 years.

Found in everything from salad to fritter baskets, conch is one of the island nation's staples, as well as a cultural icon. There are annual conch parades and festivals, featuring contests to see who can eat the most conch, cook the best conch dishes, and crack and clean conch shells the fastest. If the conch fishery collapses, it could put more than 9,000 Bahamian fishers—two percent of the country’s small population—out of work.

On January 13, the Bahamas’ Department of Marine Resources announced it would be making official recommendations to better protect the conch, including ending exports and increasing regulatory staff. The recommendations now await approval by the prime minister.

A cautionary tale

Conch territory stretches throughout the Caribbean. Conchs mostly live in seagrass beds—large, sandy plains with tall, swaying grass—which they help keep healthy by eating dead plant matter. They’re also an important food source for large predators like nurse sharks and turtles.

Conchs were once prolific in the Florida Keys, but overfishing and commercial harvesting caused the fishery to collapse in 1975. Aruba, Bermuda, Costa Rica, and Haiti conch fisheries have also perished from overexploitation, and many others are considered overfished as well.

The Bahamas has some of the laxest conch fishing regulations in the Caribbean. There is a ban on using scuba to fish for conch, as well as export quotas and a network of marine protected areas that prohibit fishing. But conservationists say regulators lack the staffing and funding to properly enforce these rules, which they say are too weak to begin with.

In 1970, just under 100 metric tonnes of conch were fished every year according to a report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. That number peaked at over 800 in 2006 and declined to 400 in 2014.

In 2015, about 400 metric tonnes of conch were caught in the Bahamas, and about half of that was exported at an estimated value of $2.3 million. The remainder was sold domestically. According to a report by NOAA, nearly all exported conch meat is shipped to the U.S.

Taking stock

View Images

A woman shops for conch shells at a beach-side souvenir stand in Turks and Caicos. The conch meat and shell industries generate millions of U.S. dollars per year across the Caribbean.

It was 2011 when scientists first became concerned about conch numbers in in the Bahamas, says Allan Stoner, one of the authors of the recent paper that made the 10-year warning. He’s a biologist with conservation group Community Conch and has been studying the mollusks for three decades. He says the rate of decline really hit them when they looked at population counts over the past decade. “We compared populations survey work in the ‘90s. And then the repeat in 2011 was a rude awakening,” he says.

A more recent survey only heightened concerns.

On a warm, sunny day last April, two researchers from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium went to count conchs in the country's Exuma Cays. These cays, part of a marine protected area, are where the Bahamas’ healthiest conch populations historically have been found.

Floating above beds of seagrass in the clear, turquoise water, biologist Andy Kough and dive program manager Amanda Weiler stretched out a tape measure between them to determine the exact space they plan to measure. They were expecting to find lots of conch babies.

But between the stretch of their tape measure, Kough found just a few adults and counted only a sparse population of juveniles—the age needed to ensure conch communities are sustained. The waters, once crowded enough to be considered a nursery, were scant.

“That could just be an off year,” he says, adding that one empty nursery can't tell scientists about the health of the fishery as a whole. But it's the increasing pattern of off years that concern conservationists.

Six months later, Kough partnered with Stoner and Martha Davis, the director of Community Conch, to publish their findings in the journal Fisheries Science & Aquaculture. Without intervention, they surmise, conchs won't be able to reproduce at a rate quick enough to keep with with the intense demand fishers are trying to meet in the Bahamas.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point yet,” says Stoner, describing their results as a wake-up call.

Scientific solutions

In their paper, Kough and Stoner make several recommendations for how to save the conch fishery.

View Images

Piles of conch shells are left behind by those who fish them solely to collect the slug. Conch meat has typically been a more lucrative market, though shells and rare conch pearls are often sold to tourists and jewelers.

One is to require that conchs be brought out of the water in their shells. Conch shells, particularly older ones, can be heavy, and most fishers in the Bahamas fish by free diving—simply holding their breath to dive underwater without the help of scuba gear. To use energy efficiently, they dive down to seagrass beds, crack the shells, and pull the slugs out, leaving the shell behind.

But the shells are important because they’re the only indicator of how old a conch is—the thicker the shell’s flared “lip,” the older the conch. Only adult conchs can be legally fished. This rule is to allow a conch enough time to reproduce before it’s taken out of the ecosystem, thereby ensuring a stable population. The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources plans to recommend a mandatory minimum lip thickness, subject to the prime minister’s approval. It’s as yet unknown what measurement the department will officially recommend, but the Bahamas National Trust, the nonprofit that manages the Bahamas' national parks, suggests 15 millimeters.

Kough is optimistic about the change. “The recommendations are a clear sign that the department is cognizant of the troubling trajectory of the conch population in the Bahamas,” he says.

The paper also suggests banning the export of conchs, a proposal supported by Shelly Cant-Woodside, the director of science and policy for the Bahamas National Trust. “That's a low-hanging fruit,” she says, and indeed its among the package of recommendations before the prime minister this month.

Both the paper and Cant-Woodside also agree on limiting conch fishing to only a few months out of the year.

Then there’s the five-year fishing ban idea. “That is the most extreme option, and there are plenty of other things they can do to avoid that kind of extreme measure,” says Kough.

Finding the political will

For any of the policies they enact, Cant-Woodside anticipates backlash. “We're not used to regulations or enforcements,” she says, describing a national sense of individualism shaped by the region's piracy era. Any restrictions on what, for many people, is their sole source of income will be met with resistance, she says.

Some, however, are less resistant that others. “For me, I am multitalented when it comes to my business, but for some people, it's kind of scary,” says Stephen Dean, a native Bahamian and owner of a restaurant that serves conch caught by local fishers. If conch is no longer available, he says, he'll turn to cooking other dishes, but he hears from conch fishers in the field that they're concerned about the future of the fishery.

Dean says many conch divers blame the six million tourists who visit the Bahamas annually and often take home conch shells as souvenirs or neighboring Dominicans illegally fishing in Bahamian waters.

The Bahamas National Trust, along with other local organizations, is creating employment alternatives for locals who are interested. Beekeeping, for instance, is one trade Cant-Woodside mentions. The Bahamas’ large tourism industry means there are also opportunities for people to hold jobs like guides—but both the tradition and scale of the conch industry will be lost if the fisheries collapse.

Though Stoner and Kough's scientific assessment of the fishery paints a dire picture, they say it's not too late to save conch in the Bahamas.

“It's a rare opportunity for them to recognize what's happening before it's too late,” says Kough.