By Chitralekha Deopersad
What do the names Cambombia, Cambute, Cararol Rosa, Cobo, Botuto, Guarura, Lambi and Carrucho all have in common? Prized in many countries, the queen conch (Strombus gigas) has a wide variety of aliases – and rightly so, given its extensive distribution and economic impact across the wider Caribbean region. Even with all its accolades, this once abundant marine gastropod is facing the very real threats of unsustainable harvesting, over-exploitation, habitat degradation, and illegal fishing.
Supply is caught between meeting the demands of a lucrative United States market for conch as well as accommodating the dietary needs of many poor subsistence fishing communities in the region.
Since the late 1990s, the global conch market has been estimated at US$60 million each year, and in 2015 alone, 1.4 million kilograms of conch was exported to the United States from the Caribbean.
The fishing industry accounts for up to eight per cent of Caribbean territories’ gross domestic product; the conch industry is a significant contributor because it is the second most important benthic fishery in the region. Millions made through the conch industry’s harvest are responsible for further revenue generation through jobs created within the processing and marketing industries for conch products. Due to its popularity, the availability of conch has steadily declined since the early 2000s. Coupled with illegal trade and poaching, makes the conch a particularly vulnerable fishery.
Major Producers of Queen Conch Exports from 1998-2008. (Source: CERMES, 2010)
Why is conch so popular? Generally valued as a subsistence food, a delicacy, a form of decoration, and even as a wind instrument, conch also has potential uses in medicine, materials engineering, and even coastal protection. Conch populations also support Caribbean fisheries by maintaining seagrass communities where one acre can produce enough biomass to sustain as many as 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates.
From Sea to Table – Undersea Conch (Left), Conch Cleaning (Centre) and Conch Salad (Right)
Since the 1970s, the demand for conch meat and conch products has seen a threefold increase. Given that this slow-moving organism is late to mature (3-3.5 years) and can be found in dense aggregations within clear shallow waters (10-30 meters), many populations were easily accessed and have been exploited over decades.
In a country such as The Bahamas, where 15 per cent of the population work either full or part time in the fisheries sector, the livelihoods of approximately 9,000 fishers are under threat if queen conch populations continue to decline. Appropriately dubbed the “final frontier” for conch, the healthiest populations have dropped by 71 per cent during the last few years in The Bahamas.
In February of 2018, the IDB became an institutional partner to a regionally historic bilateral agreement for the preservation and management of queen conch in The Bahamas. Financially supported by the Japan Special Fund Poverty Reduction Programme (JPO), with an in-kind contribution from the Bahamas National Trust, a project is underway to undertake community-based mechanisms in order to:
- Create alternative livelihoods in fishing communities;
- Implement localized conch monitoring;
- Develop conch fishery reserves/no-take zones; and,
- Implement a conch ‘traceability’ program to connect fishers with local restaurants (laying the foundation for certification).
The project is being executed by two stalwarts in marine conservation: the Bahamas National Trust and The Nature Conservancy–. By working directly with the consumer, the intent is to cultivate future sustainability within rural Bahamian communities. It is expected that through this project, there will be diversification of fishers’ income, an enhanced sustainability of conch harvest, a medium-term recovery of conch stock, and improved links of fishers to local markets.
Fictionally epitomized in William Golding’s acclaimed novel the “Lord of the Flies,” the conch plays a powerful symbol of civilization and order. This symbology is quite fitting for an ambitious project of this kind which hopes to bring queen conch – Strombus gigas – back to her former status as a queen of the seas.
About the author
Chitralekha Deopersad is an Environmental and Coastal Scientist working in the Inter-American Development Bank’s Environment, Rural Development and Disaster Risk Management Division within in the Climate Change and Sustainability Sector. She is based in The Bahamas Country Office.
Her current role is to build capacity in integrated coastal management by incorporating disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into science-based development planning, control and monitoring of coastal zones. She is also involved in streamlining the value of natural capital and ecosystem services into social and economic development initiatives.
In her previous capacity, she was involved on a broad range of environmental impact assessments, environmental compliance monitoring, shoreline evolution modelling, met-ocean and spatial analyses. She has a master’s degree in Coastal Engineering and Management from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.