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Helping to Sustain a Way of Life in the Bahamas

Way out there and back on the Little Bahama Bank!

By Catherine | 5 July 2014 | No Comments
Published in Little Bahama Bank 2014, Uncategorized
LBB route

The route of the Coral Reef II from West End, Grand Bahama to Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco.

This year’s conch survey took us to the most northern latitudes of The Bahamas and some pretty wild places. The northern edge of the Little Bahama Bank is not inhabited. Actually, there isn’t even any land to inhabit, and this is where we got started. The seas were a bit rough and the water was deeper than we anticipated, but we definitely got a sense for the thriving conch populations that still exist in these remote locations. And we met some spotted dolphin friends that brought a little cheer to our first few transects in those unfriendly waters. We could not have done our work in a place like this without the support of the Shedd Aquarium through the use of their research vessel, R/V Coral Reef II and the great crew on board…a special thanks to Captain Lou, Captain Warren, Chef Chris, and cruise director/research assistant, Becky. With no protection from the seas at our first few anchorages, we were at least glad we were in a large boat!

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One of the many spotted dolphins that greeted us on the Mantanilla Shoal! photo credit: Becky Gericke

Luckily, the weather was great for the trip and we got every area we set out to survey covered. From the Mantanilla Shoal and Reef area where we only saw one other boat over a 48 hour period, we went Southeast to the fishing grounds near Grand Cay, and then a little further south to the Carter Cays area. It was just us and the fishermen out there, and on a couple of occasions this was very lucky for us. Especially the day we had a little engine trouble and needed a tow in. We always make a point to let the fishers know what we’re up to on their turf, and this year we were able to even involve them in the collection of population age structure data…they let us measure their conch, and we gave them the conch we’d already gotten up to the boat after we’d finished taking measurements. Win, win.

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Peter and Nate with our new collaborators from Fox Town.

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Getting towed in from a few miles out. We felt very lucky that day!

As we headed further south and east, the number of boats and people in and around the water increased. The density of conch decreased, which is a pattern we’ve certainly noticed in other places. As we approached Marsh Harbour, it became a little scary being towed on a line, as other boats both big and small whizzed passed. Due partly to the great weather and mostly to the great team we had on board (which you’ll hear more about in the next post), we had a little extra time to survey the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park south of Marsh Harbour with the assistance of volunteers from Friends of the Environment. Bonus!

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Olivia, James, and AJ from Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour with Peter and Martha during our survey of the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park.

The End is just the beginning!

By Catherine | 19 June 2014 | No Comments
Published in Little Bahama Bank 2014, Uncategorized

Community Conch made it to West End, Grand Bahama last week to start our survey of the Little Bahama Bank and we’re off to a great start thanks to the help of some very dedicated supporters! After a year of planning and coordinating with the Shedd Aquarium for the use of their research vessel, the Coral Reef II, and months of organizing volunteers and coordinating logistics, we’re glad to be out on the water again counting conch.

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Martha, Marc, and Harold dodging thunderstorms off Sandy Cay.

Our first week of surveys were based on the conching grounds north of West End toward Memory Rock, an area that gets lots of fishing pressure due its proximity to land. Fishers come from all over Grand Bahama to get conch from these waters and the locals we’ve talked to seem a bit concerned by the declines they’ve seen in the populations over the last 20 years.

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Harold on a tow.

We’ve been fortunate to have some good local knowledge and logistical support for our first leg of the trip from Keith and Linda Cooper of West End Eco Fish Camp and Mr. Harold Johnson, a native of West End with a long family history in the area. Keith and Linda have provided invaluable support and resources like a boat, extra gas cans, cell phone charging, wifi, cell phone cards, public relations…you know, all the essentials for an expedition. Harold has been out on the boat with us for a few days now and has the survey protocol down. He’s provided lots of knowledge and has weathered the thunderstorms and rain we’ve been dealing with this week with a smile.

 

The 2014 conch survey crew!

The 2014 conch survey crew with WEEFCA and Paddy Widlgoose!

And now it’s time to board the R/V Coral Reef II for the most ambitious part of our survey! In a way, it feels like its just beginning! We’ll have not just one boat working, but three, and a big crew of conch counters. Our crew this year includes Bahamas Environmental Steward Scholars, scientists from the Smithsonian Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, and some aspiring Bahamian marine biologists. Next time you hear from us, we’ll be in Abaco!

New report and publication available for download!

We now have two new and interesting documents to share with you! Community Conch wrapped up reporting on our fifth conch survey season in the Jumento Cays and Ragged Islands, and we’ve added another publication of significant fishery management value. Click here to download the docs.

The first is the final report on the survey work we completed last summer in Jumento Cays and Ragged Islands. Given that we did find considerably healthier populations of conch in these southern Bahamian islands, it makes for a more uplifting read that our previous reports. Though we are glad to see the numbers are higher in these hard to fish areas, we still offers some precautionary management recommendations.

We have also recently had a paper published in the Journal of Shellfish Research on a study conducted by Dr. Stoner and our colleague Karl Mueller. Data was collected during the Exuma Cays expedition in 2011 to study the relationship between operculum dimensions and shell lip thickness. As we all know by now (right?!), lip thickness is an indicator of the age of a conch and the sexual maturity of the animal. As it turns out, checking the operculum might also be a good indicator too. The significance of this study lies in its potential usefulness to fishery managers. A major issue with enforcement of current fishery laws is the fact that most shells are discarded at sea and therefore the shells are never seen at landing docks. So, its impossible to tell whether the conch had a flared lip, much less what the lip thickness of the shell was. If fishers were required to land cleaned conchs with the operculum in tact, fishery officers would have an alternative way to determine if the animal was indeed legally harvested. Plus, fishers would not have to weigh their boats down with heavy shells which has been noted by some as a real hazard at sea. Now, quick! Find out what an operculum is!

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is not traditionally celebrated in The Bahamas, but we thought it would be a good opportunity to say thank you once again to all of the volunteers who help us out each summer. Enjoy this photo collage of volunteers that joined us in the Berry Islands, Andros, Exuma, Abaco, and down south in the Jumento Cays and Ragged Island. We could not possibly have counted and measured all of those conchs without you! Thank you!

Meet the R/Js team

By Catherine | 1 August 2013 | No Comments
Published in Ragged Island/Jumento Cays 2013, Uncategorized

In addition to the usual Community Conch team, we were joined by four volunteers this year. And we really couldn’t have chosen a better crew, because these folks were truly up for the challenge. In this post we’ll feature Erin Cash, a native of Nassau. Erin was great to have on board because not only was her master’s thesis focus on the queen conch (experience!), having just finished her thesis she was not afraid of data entry (bonus skill!), and was all around a fun person to have around (people person!). Despite a few bouts of sea sickness, Erin was also really excited to be towed behind a boat (or maybe not so much, but she did it anyway!). And she really loves conch, as you will see in her post…

Erin was especially skilled in measuring the length and lip thickness of conch shells in the smelly old conch middens we came across.

Erin was especially skilled in measuring the length and lip thickness of conch shells in the smelly old conch middens we came across.

When the opportunity was first presented to me to help on the conch project I couldn’t be more excited. As a recent graduate whose thesis revolved around this hopping strombid, I leapt at the chance to work with it again. After two and a half weeks, a couple of peaceful run-ins with a few toothy friends and a new perspective on the necessity of sunblock, I felt that all hope was not lost; though I am “missing” a couple of unwanted pounds.
Every day that we went out something new was waiting to be discovered. Some information was scientifically minded- like the densities we found- and some of it was on the human level. When you’re at sea for weeks at a time it can get a little lonely. You worry that you may run out of conversations. I remember warning another volunteer in the airport about catching up too quickly; I was worried we’d run out of things to say. However, we were able to interact with new people who were old to the area at almost every stop. Learning their perspectives and at times having a dialog as to what can and should be done about environmental issues. As the resident city slicker, being from Nassau, I was able to learn new things about my own country that I never would have known. Evidently there is at least one flamingo in the Jumentos!

Erin smiling about the number of conch she just counted on her tow.

Erin smiling about the number of conch she just counted on her tow.

The best thing I learned was that it was not all for naught. While we have a way to go it was refreshing to see relatively healthy populations. It was enlightening to survey middens that weren’t pervaded with the shells of juveniles. It was humbling to see the beauty my country presents both with its self-contained cays and staggering painted sea. It was a little dicey being pulled on a tow rope behind a boat in some of those seas, but hey- we do it for science. We do it for the conch. We do it because really, who else will? We have to see. We have to learn. We have to have that information. We have to move forward. I did it because I had to. I’m glad that I did. I’m still thrown about that flamingo though…

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Erin works on getting the data into a spreadsheet…she did it for the conch.

Ragged Island and Jumento Cays surveys – check!

By Catherine | 23 July 2013 | 1 Comment
Published in Ragged Island/Jumento Cays 2013, Uncategorized

This year’s conch surveys took us to a remote location in the southern Bahamas, the Ragged Island and Jumento Cays (R/Js) chain. Ragged Island, just 60+ miles from Cuba lies at the southern end of the chain and is inhabited by a small, resourceful Bahamian community known as Duncan Town. The rest of the islands, cays, and rocks in this long archipelago, which stretch north in an arc over 100 miles long, are only home to the abundant wildlife above and below the sea.

The Ragged Island and Jumento Cays chain in the southern Bahamas. Water Cay is the largest cay closest to Long Island and Little Exuma. Ragged Island is just 60 miles from the northeastern shore of Cuba.

The Ragged Island and Jumento Cays chain in the southern Bahamas. Water Cay is the largest cay closest to Long Island and Little Exuma. Ragged Island is just 60 miles from the northeastern shore of Cuba.

 

Our initial goal for survey of the R/Js, was to survey both the extensive shallow bank on the western side of the islands, and also try to get a good idea of what conch populations looked like in the deeper water on the eastern side of the chain. It’s always good to have a plan, but we’ve learned to be flexible when it comes to the weather. After only two days of surveys, we decided it was too windy, and therefore too rough to continue exploring the deeper shelf side. Instead, we focused on the very productive banks. It was sharky out there too! 

 

A view of narrow Water Cay from the top. We started surveys of the deeper waters (right side of the island), but ended up with more extensive surveys of the shallows (left side of the island).

A view of narrow Water Cay from the top. We started surveys of the deeper waters (right side of the island), but ended up with more extensive surveys of the shallows (left side of the island).

 

All of the information we got from the Department of Marine Resources and fishermen indicated that most of the conchs were found in the shallower waters, so we felt sure we were going to find some. As we worked our way down the islands from Water Cay, staying a night or two in the few protected anchorages we could find, we were amazed at the numbers we were seeing. It was not unusual for us to count 100+ conch on a single transect tow, which translates into high densities and healthy reproductive populations.

 

Jessica Minns brings 3 conch to the boat to be measured after a tow. Getting shell length and lip thickness measurements help us to determine the age structure of a conch population.

Jessica Minns brings 3 conch to the boat to be measured after a tow. Getting shell length and lip thickness measurements help us to determine the age structure of a conch population.

 

We had a great crew of volunteers this year. They were so capable and so brave to do the hard work that needed to be done in this remote location. Getting in and out of the water all day, every day, trying to avoid the barracudas and sharks, bouncing along in a small boat in rough conditions, and free-diving sometimes up to 40 feet to retrieve conchs for measuring…all for conchservation! At the end, everyone appreciated what the life of a fisherman must be like; except for the part where you get to sell your catch! More mini-reports coming soon!

Our 2013 crew (back row, left to right): Erin Cash, Martha Davis, Marc Vandenrydt, Allan Stoner, Montana Steell, Justin Lewis (front row, left to right) Jessica Minns, Catherine Booker

Our 2013 crew (back row, left to right): Erin Cash, Martha Davis, Marc Vandenrydt, Allan Stoner, Montana Steell, Justin Lewis (front row, left to right) Jessica Minns, Catherine Booker

 

 

The next generation

By Catherine | 16 September 2012 | No Comments
Published in Outreach, Uncategorized

In many schools throughout The Bahamas, teachers and students are starting out this year with a greater knowledge of a beloved marine resource, the queen conch. Thanks to efforts by Bahamian conservation organizations that decided to put special focus on conchs in their summer camps and workshops, the next generation will know more about the biology and ecology of the species, as well as the threats to its survival. Summer camps for kids were held on the islands of New Providence, Andros, Abaco, Grand Bahama, San Salvador, and Eleuthera. On Andros, the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) held a special “Conch-servation” Eco Camp.  The Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) and Friends of the Environment also held camps that included lessons on conch and marine conservation. Several teacher-training opportunities offered by the BNT and BREEF gave the country’s educators a chance to get hands-on experience and add a few conch-related activities to their classroom repertoire. Community Conch was able to attend several of these workshops to present our research and discuss conch conservation with the teachers. At BREEF’s annual marine conservation teacher training workshop we piloted a citizen-science program that will help raise awareness about the illegal and unsustainable harvest of juvenile conch. The camps, workshops, and citizen-science project are all part of an effort to bring conch conservation to the forefront in The Bahamas.  You’ll be hearing more about an organized campaign in the coming months. In the meantime, check out the pictures below and don’t forget check out our Facebook page for conch news updates.

 

Alannah Vellacott teaches kids how to measure lip thickness of a conch shell at BREEF’s Sea Camp on Eleuthera.

d’Shan Maycock of Friends of the Environment reviews the conch life cycle at their summer camp on Abaco.

Campers present their own conch research at the Bahamas National Trust’s Eco Camp on Andros.

Leaders of the Bahamas National Trust Discovery Club watch a video on conch conservation at their annual workshop.

Bianca Green (BNT), Jackie Chisolm-Lightbourne (College of The Bahamas), and Casuarina McKinney Lambert (BREEF) talk conch anatomy at the BREEF marine conservation teacher training workshop.

Teachers participate in the pilot of a citizen-science project designed to raise awareness about the illegal and unsustainable harvest of juvenile conch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New video – watch and learn how to estimate the age of a conch!

By Catherine | 12 July 2012 | No Comments
Published in Abaco Expedition 2012, Outreach, Uncategorized, Videos

So, what happens when the weather keeps us from getting out there and counting conch? Usually its data entry, catching up on email, lab work, checking the weather forecast, more data entry, checking the forecast again…mostly we’re behind the computer, but sometimes we get a little creative. Chris and Dunte arrived In Sandy Point just in time for the effects of a tropical storm, so they had lots of time to hone their acting skills and shoot an outreach video about one of the most interesting things they learned in their volunteer training…how to estimate the age of a conch. They also wanted to make sure they got out an important message. Take a look and share with people who might be interested!

Meet Brandon, Tow Master

By Catherine | 5 July 2012 | No Comments
Published in Abaco Expedition 2012, Uncategorized

Brandon Jennings recently graduated from C.V. Bethel High School, where he participated in their highly regarded marine science magnet program. He spent the last year as a Bahamas Environment Steward Scholar (BESS Scholar) attending the Island School and completing an internship with the Bahamas National Trust. For a 17 year old, Brandon has a lot of field experience and it shows! On late notice, he joined our project in Abaco and played a critical role in getting surveys done on the fishing grounds of More’s Island. Despite the remote location and sometimes challenging weather conditions, he averaged 11 tows per day! Definitely tow master standards. Brandon says he’s always wanted to study queen conch because he learned when he was younger that their populations have been decreasing. He was ready when the opportunity to help us came up and made a huge contribution to our effort. Thanks Brandon!

Brandon jumps in for tow #12.

Connecting with the community

By Catherine | 3 July 2012 | No Comments
Published in Abaco Expedition 2012, Outreach, Uncategorized

When Community Conch visits a a location to conduct surveys, we also set a high priority on meeting with the people who are in touch with the resource on a daily basis. These folks might be fishers, fisheries officers, restaurant owners, other scientists, and local conservationists. By connecting with them, we get a better idea of things like fishing pressure, market trends, conch population trends, important fishing areas, and of course, all of the concerns and opinions that these stakeholders are willing to share. Our work in the Bight of Abaco was centered around two settlements, Sandy Point and More’s Island, which are both are very reliant on their lobster and conch fisheries. A high percentage of the men in these communities are fishermen, and so it was our goal to hear directly from them. We also wanted to make sure they knew what we were up to on their fishing grounds! Here’s a picture of the public meeting in Sandy Point, and a few that illustrate the fishing lifestyle of the two settlements.

Catherine talking with fishermen in Sandy Point about estimating the age of a conch and reproductive maturity.

Fishing skiffs in Sandy Point. photo by C. Booker

Larger fishing boats in More's Island. photo by M. Davis

A conch shell pile or midden on the shoreline of More's Island. photo by M. Davis

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DID YOU KNOW?

deep water conch

The Queen Conch lives an average of 7 years, but may live over 30 years in the deep waters of protected habitats.

MORE FACTS >>