donate
Helping to Sustain a Way of Life in the Bahamas

Thank You!

By Catherine | 20 August 2011 | No Comments
Published in Uncategorized

The spirit of giving is amazing. Community Conch recently received a generous donation from the First Universalist Church of Denver’s Compassion in Action Program, which gives 100% of each Sunday’s donation to a nominated cause. In appreciation of our work, the members of this church reached outside of their congregation and indeed outside of their country, to help make a difference. Community Conch would like to thank the congregation of this church and many others that make our mission possible. We couldn’t do what we do without support from the diverse network of friends and family, charitable organizations, conservation organizations, and of course the people that give a great deal of their time and energy each summer, our volunteers. Thank you very much! A growing list of contributors to Community Conch can be found on Our Sponsors page. Those that have volunteered to make our expeditions possible are listed on our Volunteers page.

Alannah gets ready to count conch!

Its a small country…

By Catherine | 18 August 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

The Bahamas is an archipelago stretching hundreds of miles across roughly 5 degrees of latitude creating an arc of unbelievably beautiful turquoise water. There are indeed hundreds, if not thousands of islands (counting the smallest rocks) within its 5,383 square miles. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in the northern Exuma Cays is roughly 50 miles from the major population center of New Providence Island (Nassau) and 30 miles from the island of Eleuthera, but unless you have a boat to travel as the crow flies, you must fly from Nassau to connect with a flight to Staniel Cay, and then take a 45-minute boat ride to Warderick Wells to get there. Which is what we did. Because of the difficult logistics of getting to the Land and Sea Park, you wouldn’t expect to run into anybody you know from Eleuthera (or anywhere else), until you realize that the population of The Bahamas is considerably small (less than 400,000 people live in all of The Bahamas) and so maybe, the probability is greater than you’d think. So it was a real “small world” encounter when I ran into Chris Maxey and family one morning at the Park headquarters. They had traveled to the Land and Sea Park by boat and I was not entirely surprised to see them.

A Google Earth image labeled with approximate locations in the Exuma Cays chain, and of New Providence and Cape Eluethera.

Chris and his wife, Pam started The Island School on Cape Eleuthera over 10 years ago. They created a place where kids (primarily high school students studying abroad) can go to learn about living sustainably, gain a sense of place and self, participate in really interesting research projects, and become better leaders. The campus models sustainable systems for The Bahamas, like the production and use of alternative energy (biodiesel, wind, and solar), constructed wetlands for waste treatment, permaculture, and aquaponics. A semester at The Island School is a life changer for its students. As a way of giving back to the communities of south Eleuthera where the school is based, the Island School helps to support a middle school in one of the settlements nearby that attracts students from south Eleuthera. They also provide scholarships for Bahamian high school students to attend a semester at The Island School and complete a 6 month internship. And this is where it becomes a really small country…

Ted, David, and Jasmine reunited at the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Jasmine and Ted, two of our volunteers in the Land and Sea Park, and Alannah, who was with us at Lee Stocking Island, are all Bahamian graduates of The Island School. I met Jasmine and Alannah while there assisting with shark research a couple of years ago, and was very impressed with their skills in the water, and passion for the marine conservation research. Ted joined Community Conch 2 years ago for our first surveys in the Berry Islands as part of his Island School internship. So, as you can imagine, it was a nice surprise to see the Maxeys at Warderick Wells and have a brief reunion. But that’s not all…

Boat fulls of Island School students at the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

A few days later, I received an email from a graduate student, Erin Cash, who is working at The Island School’s research facility, The Cape Eleuthera Institute. She explained that she is studying queen conch around Cape Eleuthera for her master’s degree and is currently leading a research course on conch for the summer term. She asked if it would be possible to come visit us at Warderick Wells, because she thought it would be a good opportunity for the kids. Well, 3 days later they arrived in 3 boats full of people ready for a quick tour of the Park. They brought David Miller, a veteran teacher at the Island School. It turns out that Ted was one of David’s very first advisees when he started there 3 years ago! So again, it was a great reunion.

Ted ascends from a dive.

Jasmine splashes in for a dive.

What do these small world connections have to do with the queen conch and conservation? Well, considering that future generations are likely to have even bigger fisheries and conservation challenges than the world is dealing with today, a little first hand experience early in these student’s education seems like it would be a very good thing.

The 20 kids who traveled from Eleuthera to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park that day all got to experience a working marine reserve, one that is protecting perhaps the healthiest conch stocks in The Bahamas. The Community Conch crew had good discussion with them about our work, and the role we are playing in conservation of such an important fishery species. This exchange took place out of the classroom, and in a real world context, so it made a big impression on them (or so we heard!).

Jasmine, Ted, and Alannah might not have joined our team this year or in previous years if it weren’t for the hands-on experience in marine science and scientific diving they gained at The Island School. They contributed a lot to this year’s mission, and will take with them a better understanding of the state of the conch fishery and conservation of the species. Not so secretly, we hope students like Jaz, Ted, and Alannah will one day find “real jobs” in The Bahamas as scientists, resource managers, and policy makers, and join the efforts underway to keep their country’s ecosystems, and the livelihoods of the people dependent on these ecosystems, in tact.  It is a small country after all, and a few people can make a difference!

Borrowed from piscoweb.org...a great resource!

Finally, it is entirely possible that the populations of queen conch in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park that we surveyed are connected to populations around Cape Eleuthera where the Island School is located. (Check out the previous post for more about meta-populations and connectivity.) Conch larvae drift in the currents for about a month before settling in the place where they will grow up. Circulation of water within Exuma Sound (the body of water between Eleuthera and the Exuma Cays) could carry conch larvae from one island to the next, so Erin and her students could be studying conchs that are related to conchs that we were studying!

 

Thanks for checking in,

Catherine

 

Fishing grounds and marine reserves…what a conch-trast!

By Catherine | 31 July 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized
As I’ve said before, we were very lucky to have a great group of volunteers again this year. People came from a variety of backgrounds and places, and so all had their own unique impressions of The Bahamas and the studies we are doing. Adric Olson was our only volunteer who stayed for the duration (full five weeks) of the trip. He counted a lot of conch and spent lots of time in the water at both the Lee Stocking Island study site and the Warderick Wells site. Adric was a great person to have around because of his positive attitude and sense of humor. He has the observation skills of a scientist, and always had a good question or suggestion. Here is Adric’s unique perspective…and our attempt to explain some of the finer points of fishery conservation science….
I would be remiss if I didn’t start my blog post by thanking those who made this trip possible for me. It has been a great experience and so I’d like to say thanks to Community Conch and the staffs at both the Perry Institute for Marine Science and the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, in addition to those who provided funding for the trip.

Adric found one of the oldest conchs we saw on the whole trip. photo by C. Booker

As I am one of the few people who was lucky enough to participate in the field work for the entire 5-week duration, I have a unique perspective on the quality and quantity of queen conch stocks in the Exumas. As you may have read, the number of conchs we found around Lee Stocking Island is small enough to be troubling, particularly in the deeper waters. This depletion is even more troubling when the numbers are compared with those reported by Dr. Alan Stoner’s from his studies done in 1991 (Stoner and Ray, 1996). (I’m sure this will be discussed in a much more scientific manner in the paper that will be published as a result of our work, so I will try to avoid mentioning specifics here). Although we did find a lot more conchs in the shallower areas around the Lee Stocking study area, they were very young which further compounded our concern. Although this may seem like a positive sign for the future of the conch, the reality may be much bleaker. A large amount of scientific research has shown that fishing pressures can drive the average size and age of commercially harvested species so that stocks become both smaller and younger, followed by a collapse of even the most expansive stocks (See: Beluga Sturgeon, Atlantic Cod, and queen conch in other countries of the Caribbean!).

Adric and Jasmine get ready for a dive. photo by C. Booker

The good news it that we saw a lot more queen conchs in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park than we did around Lee Stocking Island. The density of conchs  (the number of conchs per hectare) was much greater, which is a good sign. Scientists are interested in measuring density within a population because generally, the more conchs there are in an area, the greater chance they have of finding each other and reproducing. And the larger the population (or number of individuals), the more likely it is that density will also be greater. But to have a proper discussion about the conch stocks in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a basic understanding of source-sink and meta-population dynamics is necessary.
Metapopulations come into play in fisheries when population groups (often called sub-populations) of a species are separated and small, so that the possibility of individuals from different populations finding each other and reproducing is virtually eliminated. In the case of the queen conch and other organisms that do not move long distances, the bigger the population and greater the density, the better chance individuals within the population have of finding each other and mating. A good way to visualize this to think about a somewhat cloudy day, where there are lots of distinct clouds in the sky but none of them touch any of the others. Just like the distinct populations found in a metapopulation model, some clouds are bigger than others and some are closer together. In nature, individuals, and therefore genes, can travel between these population “clouds”, depending on proximity, ease of travel, and other factors. This type of model applies for any number of organisms (even humans – North America and Europe are connected by airplanes and boats but the vast majority of those on either continent tend to stay and reproduce on that continent). Source-sink dynamics refer to the exchange between populations. Trouble can occur when one of the clouds is not able to sustain a population without an influx of individuals from another population. This unsustainable area or population is called a sink. The population or populations sustaining it are called sources. The smaller and further apart populations are, the less likely that this necessary exchange will occur.

A graphic representation of Adric's explanation of metapopulations and source/sink dynamics.

Now, how does this pertain to the Land and Sea Park? The expectation is that marine reserves in general will act as sources that support populations outside of the area, but also, hopefully, sustain themselves. If a reserve like the Land and Sea Park is acting as a sink and cannot sustain itself, this could spell doom for populations (like populations of the queen conch) within that reserve if the source populations necessary to sustain it are destroyed. This is why scientists believe that a network of marine reserves is a better management approach, so that there will always be some populations large enough and close enough together so that exchange can occur. So is the Land and Sea Park a source or a sink? Is it sustaining itself? This is a complicated question which can have different answers depending on the species you are considering. Currents in the area and the duration of the larval phase of a species life cycle are important. As for the queen conch, we have some clues based on the population structure inside the Park. Look for our assessment in our next report!
Adric observes a trio of conchs. photo by C. Booker
I’m going to conclude my post by saying nice things about the Bahamas, because I really enjoyed my time there. Almost every Bahamanian I met was exceptionally friendly, to the point that I felt they would oblige me if I needed the shirt off their back. On one notable occasion, I got to go to Big D’s on Great Exuma, where Big D made us the most photogenic conch salad I’ve ever seen (yes, sustainably caught!) and then chatted us up all night. Big D is a big supporter of queen conch conservation. He knows his business depends on it.

"Big D" of Big D's Conch Spot in Steventon, Great Exuma presents his beautiful conch salad and a large adult conch. photo by Karl Mueller

The scenery in the Bahamas was beautiful and the number of mostly undeveloped islands could yield an infinite number of postcard-perfect sights. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park was beautiful and I was blown away by the large number of sharks and fish, large and small. The majority of fauna in the Park was flourishing and the only shame is that the other parts of The Bahamas I saw during this trip didn’t look the same way. The Bahamas are a fantastic country with untold treasures and I just hope they are able to make the few changes necessary to preserve their beauty so I can share them with my children someday.

Andy, the conch whisperer

By Catherine | 25 July 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

The surveys and our 2011 field season are officially completed! We’ve left the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and the volunteers have traveled back home, but there is still a lot to say. Now with better internet access, I think it would be a shame to stop the blog. As we have more time to reflect on this expedition, I know there will be more for us to share. Scientific results aside, we learned a lot on this trip, and I think it is important to continue the conversation with a broader audience.

So, for our first post-expedition post, we’re going to recognize one of our veteran volunteers, Andy Mclean, who shall now be know as the conch whisperer.

Part of our reproductive study of queen conch this year involved determining whether the animal was male or female. This is very difficult to do without sacrificing the animal, because conchs are very shy. They have that big, hard shell to protect their soft bodies, and they use it whenever they sense danger. If disturbed, a conch may retract its entire body back into the shell and stay there until it is sure that the threat has passed.

The best way to find out if a conch is a girl or a boy is to look for the presence or absence of the male’s reproductive organ, “the verge”. The verge is easy to spot if the conch is out of its shell, though it is very rare (but possible) to catch a conch extending its body far enough out of its shell.

Andy became our expert at using non-invasive, non-lethal techniques to determine the sex of a conch. He was patient. He was non-threatening. He knew just where to look when a conch decided to emerge, and make a “run” for it. (Conchs are very, very slow, so it is really more like a “crawl for it”.) As Peyton put it, “Andy’s got the urge to see the verge emerge.”

We are not sure why this talent would be useful in any other setting, but perhaps you will see Andy featured in his own T.V. show one day…

First, Andy listens to the conchs as he brings them to the surface. photo by C. Booker

 

A fiesty old conch emerges for Andy. photo by C. Booker

 

Andy waits and watches patiently. photo by C. Booker

 

An early attempt at the x-ray vision technique. photo by C. Booker

He’s finally in The Bahamas…counting conchs

By Catherine | 18 July 2011 | 1 Comment
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

As a nine year old kid I ordered a set of goggles, snorkel, and fins from Montgomery Ward Catalog.  I taught myself to snorkel in the college pool as my Dad taught his Water Safety Instructor courses.  As the students swam their laps and did their tasks I dove in and among them imagining all kinds of scenarios with me being in the Bahamas; diving the warm Caribbean waters instead of the chlorinated, heated pool at Chadron State College.

In these imaginary adventures there were any number of animals; sharks, rays, morays, and octopus.  Now, years later, (and we won’t count how many…though the reference to the “Monkey Wards” Catalog should give you a hint) here I am actually in the warm waters off the sands of Warderick Wells Cay in the Bahamas.   I’m here having adventures with conch.  Yea, there are sharks, rays, morays and octopus around…be we are concentrating on the queen conch.

Mark "Peyton" heads to surface with a conch.

A friend sent me an email about the Community Conch project and said he thought I might be interested.  I looked into it, and I was.  I contacted Catherine and said I was very interested in coming to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park and helping any way I could with the project.   She said come on down.

So I did.  I wanted to observe the methods and protocols of their conch surveys.  We do similar survey work along transects, only in terrestrial habitats.  Our work revolves around the effects of different grazing schedules on grass, invasive weeds, and breeding birds.  One of the major problems is always in insuring your sampling is unbiased and that your subsequent analysis is accurate.  Community Conch has the same concerns and coming from such a different environment to watch and learn from them helps me to evaluate our sampling and our monitoring work.

One aspect of the surveys, towing an observer behind the boat, head and mask in the water looking down and counting conch, reminds me of doing large mammal surveys from an airplane…flying above and counting only those viewed through a special frame on the plane…though in doing that you don’t have to worry about the speed of the plane pulling your swimming suit down to your ankles.  OK, that only happened once!   However, this compare and contrast activity, or “cross fertilization” as Martha calls it, is exactly what I had hoped for.

Peyton waits patiently for a conch to come out of its shell, a technique we call "waiting on the verge."

If nothing else this has been a wonderful change for me.  First, as you would expect, the Bahamas in July are about as different from Nebraska in July as you can get; secondly, I’m working in sea water instead of the open grasslands or the gravel mine lakes that I frequent at home.  Lastly, while I’ve been on any number of recreational dive trips over the years, the diving here is quite different.

Peyton checks out a Bahamian coral reef.

On a recreational dive you are schooled to slow down, relax, don’t exert yourself.  Here, the dives last about 40 minutes with 28 of those minutes consisting of active swimming.  Two divers go down.  One navigates a square while the other searches for conch.  I’ve never been able to stretch out a tank full of air in relaxed recreational diving and with these dives, because of the exertion; it is a challenge for me to simply get to the anchor again before I begin to run low on air.   However, they are working around my limitations and I’m really enjoying the dives.

Today, however, I won’t be diving, I will again don the snorkel, mask, and fins and we will go looking for conch in shallow areas.  Once we locate the conch we will free dive and try and find individuals that fit the size range we need for our study.

Mark shares another good story.

Our two-week adventure is drawing to a close and it has been great.  The weather has been very good, the diving fun, and the people I’m working around fantastic. All things come full circle and today, years after playing out my dreams in the pool, I’ll grab my  snorkel and fins and live those dreams of diving in the clear, warm waters of the Bahamas.

-Peyton

Big or small, we love them all!

By Catherine | 15 July 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

Over the past few weeks we’ve seen lots of queen conch. We’ve spent what amounts to days and days in the water and covered miles (or kilometers) of seabed in search of these animals. Each day the crew from the dive boat and the crew from the tow boat compare notes. Where did you go? How many did you see? How big? Any mating? Eggs? How old were they?

After listening to these daily reports and seeing hundreds of conch myself, I am amazed by the variety of shell sizes and shapes within the species, Strombus gigas. This variety is likely due to a combination of genetics, the kind of the habitat the conch is living in, and the age of the animal. In a previous post I briefly talked about the differences between juveniles, rollers, and adults (a little more on that soon), but for this post I am really talking about the adults.

A thin-lipped, "young adult" queen conch shell at Warderick Wells. photo by C. Booker

Measuring the flared lip of an older adult conch shell. photo by M. Peyton

Here in Warderick Wells the dive crew is finding a lot of older conchs in the deeper waters we are exploring. Most of the old conchs we find have shells that are very rounded and have long since lost the beautiful pale pink on the outside of their shells. They are extremely heavy because of the layers and layers of calcium carbonate shell the animal has built up over the years. The younger conchs the towing crew finds generally have a much more delicate appearance because their shell has not been worn down over time and the beautiful hues of pinks still stand out. So, age does obviously make a difference in the appearance of the conch.

A conch covered in algae. photo by C. Booker

All animals are shaped by their environment, and the queen conch is no different. The appearance of a conch shell is very influenced by the biological environment it lives in. Fishermen know that a conch’s shell tends to take on certain characteristics of its habitat and are not fooled by this “disguise”. Our towing team has had a great time trying to spot conchs disguised by lots of algae growing on their shell that resemble little “Chia pets”, or “rasta conchs” (depending on who you ask).  These guys blend into their habitat really well! Towards the end of a conch’s life the thick shell has almost certainly become a little ecosystem itself.  We’ve seen many different species of algae, some corals, and boring worms in the oldest shells.

Another reason for such great variety in the conchs we have seen may have to do with their genetic “flexibility”, or what scientists call phenotypic plasticity. Most immobile (or less mobile) animals can change the way their genes are expressed based on the habitat they live in. Scientists think that depending on the habitat (the physical environment and the food that is available), a conch’s shell might actually form differently in size and even in shape. After all, the better adapted they are, the more likely they are to survive!

An adult "samba" conch shell (on the left) and an adult "broad-lipped" conch shell (on the right).

We have also been finding a lot of a small variety of conch we call “sambas”. They are like miniature versions of the big broad-lipped queen conch that usually represents the species. The samba adults are still recognized by the flared lip, but it is not as big and beautiful. We do not know what exactly causes these conchs to grow smaller (type of food, availability of food, water quality, genetics?), but scientific investigations have indicated they may be genetically different than the normal sized queen conch.

In the end, we don’t mind what they look like; they all get counted as queen conch. However, from what we have heard, fishermen do care what a conch looks like. The small samba conchs are harder to get out of the shell and the meat is tougher, so they are often skipped over. The really old conchs may be passed up too for the same reason. The large conchs with the broad shell lips are tastier and you get more return ($) for your effort. Is this preference by fishermen (what scientists call selective fishing pressure) having an affect on the overall fishery? If only the sambas are left to reproduce, is that what we can expect to see more of in the future? From what we saw in the Berry Islands and Andros, this could be happening already.

Thanks for checking in…

Catherine

 

Breaking news from the dive crew!

By Catherine | 11 July 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

Well everyone, at this early stage no real conclusions can be drawn about what we’re going to find in the deeper depths here in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, but so far, we have found more queen conch on one transect than we did on all the transects we did (40) at Lee Stocking Island! We’ve also observed more mating and egg masses as well, which means more reproduction too. More conchs! More reproduction! Could the Park be living up to its reputation?

Ted carefully lifts a mating pair of queen conch off the bottom. If you look closely you can see the male's verge stretching into the female's shell. photo by C. Booker

Our new volunteers are a great bunch of people. Andy and Ted were with us in the Berry Islands in 2009, and Peyton and Jasmine have joined us for the first time. And of course, we still have Adric with us. So, we’re getting everyone trained in the field, and just starting to get into our daily work rhythm. Stayed tuned for posts from the volunteers’ perspectives on the project and the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park!

The dive crew takes a lunch break in a protected cove. photo by C. Booker

Thanks for checking in…

Catherine

Welcome to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

By Catherine | 6 July 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Uncategorized

After sailing steadily up the Exuma Cays chain, we have made it to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park! This no take marine reserve has been protected since 1986 years and is known as the oldest Park of its kind in the world. Diving and snorkeling here is like going back in time. The marine life is truly amazing and unlike anything you might see throughout the rest of the Caribbean. A few of us took a quick snorkel yesterday and immediately noticed the difference. Quite simply, there are a lot more fish. There are a lot more different species of fish. The fish are bigger and they seem uninterested in your presence. They continue with their daily fish lives, displaying typical fish behaviors as you watch (as opposed to diving for cover as soon as you get too close). On our snorkel we saw a large coral head with 10 lobsters hiding beneath it. We saw juvenile and roller conchs. We saw large predatory fish and lots of big parrotfish grazing away. It really is a special place.

The Park rules.

 

A large Black grouper in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Scientists have been documenting the uniqueness of such a well-preserved ecosystem and the benefits it can have for fisheries conservation for many years. Scientific studies have shown that Nassau grouper biomass (a measure that captures both the number and size of a particular organism) inside the Park is much greater than outside of the Park, and that rates of parrotfish grazing (an important ecological process that keeps reefs healthy) are much higher in the Park (Mumby et al. 2006). Recently, scientists have found that in the Park there are fewer lionfish (an invasive species) on reefs where there is high grouper biomass. In places outside of the Park where grouper populations have been depleted, there are more lionfish, so it seems having more large grouper may help control this invasive species (Mumby et al. 2011). About 20 years ago, Dr. Allan Stoner and colleagues found that the density of conch (the number of individuals per area) in the Park is 31 times greater than densities on the fishing grounds around Lee Stocking Island (Stoner and Ray 1996). And that is, of course, why we are here today; to determine if those conch densities are still really high here in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Adric Olson and with Brenda from Breda's Kitchen take-away on Little Farmer's Cay.

 

Aiden Burrows of Little Farmers Cay prepares freshly caught conch for the fryer.

On our way here, we stopped by the settlements of Little Farmers Cay and Black Point to talk to fishermen about their experiences in our study areas. We had a good conversation with fishermen on Little Farmers Cay about the conching grounds around Lee Stocking, and enjoyed a delicious conch dinner from one of the local take-away restaurants. At Black Point I was able to make some good contacts for a future meeting with the fishermen there. People found it very amusing that we were headed to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park to count conch. They told me we were going to get tired of counting conch because there are SO MANY in the Park! They also warned us that we might see sharks…I told them I hoped so!

Until next time…

Catherine

Important Queen Conch Surveys Taking Place in the Exuma Cays This Summer

By Catherine | 9 June 2011 | No Comments
Published in Exuma Cays Expedition 2011, Press Releases, Uncategorized

(NASSAU, BAHAMAS) – This summer a team of scientists and volunteers will conduct important surveys of queen conch populations in the Exuma Cays of The Bahamas. Community Conch, a U.S. non-profit organization, has organized this year’s expedition. It is their third conch survey in the country since 2009. With support from the Department of Marine Resources, the Bahamas National Trust, and the Perry Institute for Marine Science, the group will look closely at conch populations in two areas that were surveyed nearly 20 years ago to document trends in the numbers and reproductive success of this economically and ecologically important species.

The queen conch is known to scientists as Strombus gigas, and throughout the Caribbean by a variety of names such as the pink conch, the broad-lipped conch, karkó, lambi, and the giant conch. Queen conch has been an important staple in the diet of many Caribbean cultures and a seafood delicacy for tourists, but unfortunately the species is threatened throughout its range and is already commercially extinct in many countries including the United States. Because of diminishing stocks throughout the Caribbean, the queen conch is protected through export restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The Bahamas is no exception. Despite national and international regulation of the fishery, queen conch populations are disappearing here too. In many places where an abundance of conchs were once found, there are few if any left, especially in the coastal waters that are easily fished. According to the most experienced fishermen, at one time it seemed that there was an endless supply of the tasty marine snail, but those times have passed. To find enough for a commercial harvest, fishermen must now travel farther than ever before. On some of the more populated islands it is often difficult to find even a few for the dinner table. Bahamian fishery regulations prohibit the taking of conchs without a flared lip, but illegal harvest of juvenile or undersized conchs is still widely practiced.

So, what can be done to protect the queen conch in The Bahamas and ensure a viable fishery in the future? How can the country sustain a commercial fishery without overly depleting such a valuable natural resource? What will be the costs and benefits to the fishing community and to the people of The Bahamas?

Community Conch and the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) are searching for answers to these questions, as are other conservation organizations in The Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean. A first step is to find out where healthy populations still exist and where protection may be needed. Scientists are particularly concerned with the density of conchs in an area, or the number of individuals per hectare, because higher densities of adult conchs are needed for the successful mating seasons that replenish stocks. In 2009, Community Conch and DMR completed the first large scale stock assessment of a commercial conch fishing ground in the Berry Islands and a baseline survey of conch populations within the new Berry Island Marine Reserve. In 2010, Community Conch continued their work with The Nature Conservancy in the traditional fishing grounds of Andros.  Sadly, in both locations, the densities were already too low for reproduction, though there were still higher densities of small, commercially undesirable “samba” conchs.

This year during the conch mating season, Community Conch plans to revisit areas in the Exuma Cays that were surveyed in the mid 1990s by Dr. Allan Stoner, who is now the lead scientist for the organization. One of the survey areas is within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, known for being the oldest no-take marine reserve in the world. The other survey area is near Great Exuma and was once a very productive fishing ground for local communities. Nearly 20 years ago, the original surveys of these locations showed that the density of adult conch in the Exuma Park was 31 times higher than that in the fishing ground just north of Great Exuma; even back then it seemed that fishing had started to take its toll.

Dr. Stoner expects that the upcoming surveys in the Exuma Cays will provide important new information about how densities of conch may be changing in these fished and unfished (no-take) areas. “It will be really important to see how the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park has been functioning as a conch reserve over time,” he says. “Since conch larvae drift for about three weeks before settling in a new location, it is not known if the larvae produced in the Park stay in the park or settle downstream.  So, if populations are depleted upstream of the park, it is possible that the density of conch in the Park could decline along with populations outside the Park. This year’s studies are designed to address these questions, and will provide new information critical for conch conservation.”

Martha Davis, Community Conch’s founder and director, elaborates on a second goal for the 2011 expedition: to determine a better estimate of when in the life of a queen conch it is able to mate and lay eggs, a stage in the life cycle also known as reproductive maturity.   “We know that near its third year, a conch starts to form a flared lip on its shell and at this point, the shell grows no longer, only thicker. Scientists have proven that the thickness of this lip is related to the conch’s age,” she explains.  In The Bahamas, regulation of the conch fishery was based upon the belief that when a conch has a flared lip, it is mature and has had the opportunity to reproduce before being harvested. Ms. Davis suggests that while this has been the criterion used historically, there is more current scientific evidence that shows a flared lip may not be the best indicator of adulthood or reproductive maturity. “Thin-lipped conch may not reproduce until the following summer season, so they could actually be harvested before they reproduce. We need to find out how thick the conch’s lip is when it is capable of reproducing.”

Community Conch relies on committed volunteers from The Bahamas and the U.S for their field studies. This year the organization will be joined by three Bahamian students eager to gain experience in marine science and conservation. While in the Exumas, members of the expedition plan to meet with community members to share and discuss conch conservation issues.

 

About Community Conch:

The mission of Community Conch is to affect sustainable harvest of queen conch through research, education and collaboration with local communities, the Bahamian government and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The organization welcomes comments and suggestions, and shares information with the public via their website www.communityconch.org.
Media Contact

Catherine Booker

Scientist and Field Representative

242-357-0134

catherinebooker@communityconch.org

###

Page: 123

DID YOU KNOW?

adult conch

A Queen Conch flares its shell lip at 3-4 years, but it may take 6 years to reach sexual maturity.

MORE FACTS >>