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Charlotte Amalie
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HomeNewsLocal newsFeds: Conch is Threatened; VI: Not by Us

Feds: Conch is Threatened; VI: Not by Us

A staple in Caribbean diets and culture, the queen conch is being overfished, according to federal authorities who want to designate it as a “threatened” species. (Shutterstock Photo)

What’s more at risk, the legendary, revered, and tasty queen conch, or the handful of Virgin Islanders who make a living fishing for them?

Environmentalists have been warning for a long time that the numbers of the popular sea snail, scientific name Aliger Gigas (formerly Strombus Gigas) were decreasing.

The conch has been hunted since prehistoric times, primarily for its meat but also for its attractive, pink-orange shell. It is a staple in the diet of many indigenous people throughout the Caribbean and is found in Atlantic waters from Bermuda to Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Concerns about a waning population have spurred international efforts to slow the decline by limiting fishing. And periodically, the U.S. government reviews the species’ status and makes recommendations.

Based on its latest study, concluded in the spring of 2022, the National Fisheries Service (an arm of NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is proposing that queen conch be designated “threatened.” The listing would force jurisdictions to institute – or review existing – management plans to reduce conch fishing. It could also discourage or even lead to a ban on sales to the U. S. market.

The proposal is getting little support from fishing interests throughout the Caribbean, including in the territory, where stakeholders say the move is unnecessary.

If there is any sort of restriction, Gerson Martinez thinks the territory should be exempt from it. He is one of the most prolific conch fishers on St. Croix, where the vast majority of V.I. conch fishing takes place.

“The Virgin Islands has been doing its homework when it comes to protecting this resource,” Martinez said.

The director of the agency that oversees the small-scale V.I. industry agrees.

“What we’re doing right now is really good management,” Nicole Angeli, director of the Fish and Wildlife division at the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, told the Source. The threatened designation could disproportionately impact what is a very small industry; there are only 240 commercial fishers in all of the territory, and not of all of them fish conch.

In a letter to NOAA, Angeli wrote: “We suggest further review prior to listing due to potential unnecessary barriers to research, restoration, and sustainable harvest of the species primarily in the US Caribbean, with limited impacts in other countries of the Caribbean, South and Central and America that occupy a much larger percentage of the species range.”

Angeli noted that the federal review was comprehensive and had to consider all parts of the conch’s range. There is overfishing in some other areas, she said, adding that “illegal and unreported fishing is the main problem.” However, “That’s not happening here in the Virgin Islands.” At least not now.

There was concern about overfishing locally in the 1980s. Angeli said that prompted a complete ban on conch fishing from 1987 to 1994, while research took place. Then a seasonal closure was imposed.

For the last 20 years or so, the territory has limited both the size and the numbers of conch that can be taken each year. It also limits the fishing season to seven months per year, or less depending on the amount harvested.

Conch is off-limits from June 1 through Oct. 31. Those dates were chosen, Angeli said, because “That’s when they’re reproducing.”

Martinez remembers when the annual limit on queen conch for the combined catches of all commercial fishers on St. Croix was 250,000 pounds.

Now the limit is just 50,000 pounds, and that includes the weight of the shells, not just the animal inside. Once that limit is reached, the season closes, regardless of the date. The same limits apply to the St. Thomas-St. John district, although there is little if any commercial conch fishing there.

Along with the weight limits, there are number limits. Each fisher used to be allowed to catch 150 conches per day, Martinez said. With four fishers typically working in a single boat, that worked out to a maximum of 600 conches per day. Now, regardless of how many people work a boat, it can take only 200 conches per day.

The queen conch’s life span is about 25 to 30 years, according to the NOAA website. It reaches maturity and is able to reproduce at about 3.5 or four years. Its shell is slow-growing and can reach a length of about 12 inches and a weight of about five pounds. Reproduction requires a male and a female to mate. One concern NOAA cites in its recent report is a dearth of conch aggregating for mating in some areas.

In the territory, only conch with a shell at least 9 inches long and a lip that is three-eighths of an inch thick are legal catch, Angeli said. That ensures the conch is an adult and has had a chance to reproduce.

Martinez said the various limitations of conch catches have not damaged the local industry “because when you have a lot of something, the price goes down.” In the old days, conch was selling for between $3.50 to $4.00 a pound. Now the price is $10 per pound if it’s partly cleaned, and $12 per pound if it’s completely cleaned.

“And on St. Thomas, it’s even more,” he said. Martinez buys conch from other Crucian fishers and transports it for sale to St. Thomas.

The conch taken from V.I. waters makes its way to V.I. dinner tables – either in private homes or in restaurants. It doesn’t feed the U.S. market, Martinez said. “The Bahamas supplies the States,” he added.

Angeli did not dispute the assessment, but she said she couldn’t confirm it because DPNR does not track imports or exports.

Ruth Gomez, public relations officer for the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association, concurred that there is little if any conch, or other fish, sold outside the territory.

“The Virgin Islands fishery is not an export fishery,” she said. “It’s a small-boat, market-driven fishery” and a generational industry on both St. Thomas and St. Croix.

According to NOAA, in 2019 the catch from both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands waters was 160,000 pounds and valued at $1 million.

Cultural considerations

In many areas, including the Virgin Islands, conch is more than a food source. It’s part of history and culture.

In the Bahamas, a conch shell is depicted on the country’s official coat of arms.

In Grenada, it appears on a postage stamp.

In the Florida Keys, people call their string of little islands “The Conch Republic.”

In the Virgin Islands, the conch shell is a symbol both of slavery and resistance; the blowing of the shell is the call to freedom.

In 2013, the Legislature designated the conch the “official seashell” of the Virgin Islands. A race was named “the Conch Shell Classic.” The V.I. Labor Department partnered with a jewelry design business to conduct a workshop on making shell jewelry. Pounded, fried, stewed, sauced, souped and seasoned, conch is a traditional favorite for every carnival, fete and festival in the islands.

All of that would be hard to give up.

However, according to the NOAA study, without drastic intervention, queen conch is in danger of extinction within a few decades.

The agency held a public hearing on its proposal to list the conch as “threatened” in November. The formal public comment period ended Dec. 15. A NOAA official told the Source that no date has been set for making a final decision, but by statute, that is supposed to happen within a year of proposing the action. In this instance, that means by September 2023.

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