Overfishing could put the queen conch — a large sea snail known for its showy shell and delicious meat — on the path to extinction, US government scientists concluded earlier this year after a comprehensive review of the species. Federal officials are now considering whether to list the Caribbean species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, after gathering public comment on the proposal last week. But fishing communities in several countries oppose the move, worried that such a listing could halt their ability to export conch meat to the United States, their biggest market.
“We are not convinced that listing the species under the ESA is warranted at this time, or the best option available to protect the species,” Maren Headley, a fisheries scientist at the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism, an intergovernmental organization, said at a public hearing hosted online last month by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Citing “great concern” about the potential economic impact of listing the species as threatened, she said improving fisheries management should be the goal.
The queen conch, which lives on seagrass beds throughout the Caribbean, has been fished for its meat for centuries. In the Bahamas, where a conch rests atop the country’s coat of arms, large mounds of seashells are testament to the history and scale of exploitation. “The recovery from the world’s largest seagrass ecosystem has been enormous,” said Andrew Kough, a marine biologist at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
The species has few defenses against divers seeking its valuable meat. Some shells stay safe by living in remote or deep water. Older individuals, which grow up to 35 centimeters long, can eventually become camouflaged with algae or corals growing on their shells.
Due to overexploitation, conch fishing was banned in Florida in 1975. Population declines followed in other countries, and in 1992 international trade in the species was regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES was concerned about continued overharvesting and in 2003 called on nations to ban imports of shells from Honduras, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Today, numbers are thin across nearly its entire range, and the larvae are not dispersing enough to maintain gene flow between remaining local populations, according to a scientific review completed by NOAA in May. Some populations still reproduce in the Bahamas, Jamaica and a few other locations, but these fisheries are likely to become unsustainable sometime in the next 30 years. If that happens, poaching is likely to worsen and the species would face a “moderate” risk of extinction, NOAA says.
A US designation of the queen’s conch as endangered would not, by itself, require other nations to act to protect the conch. But NOAA Fisheries notes that a listing could justify blocking imports in the future, potentially increasing incentives to better manage the snail fishery. In 2018, the United States imported $33 million worth of conch meat for fritters, chowder and other dishes. A US listing “sends a clear message that this species is at risk,” said Nick Higgs, a marine biologist at the Cape Eleuthera Institute, a research center in the Bahamas.
Not everyone agrees. “My view of the status is not nearly as dire as the report shows,” said Richard Appeldoorn, a fisheries biologist at the University of Puerto Rico. He says NOAA’s risk analysis doesn’t take into account the fact that snails congregate before mating, which means a low population density observed in a survey can look deceptively bad. Surveys should note whether snails are mating or have released eggs to give a more accurate picture of population health, he says.
Tapping into the local knowledge of shellfishing communities would improve those surveys, Raimundo Espinoza, director of Conservación ConCiencia, a nonprofit conservation organization in Puerto Rico, said at the hearing. “The best scientists aren’t the best at finding conch,” he said. “There is an opportunity to advance the collection of data for science.”
Some countries say they are doing their best to manage the conches responsibly. In the public hearing, Mauro Gongora of the Belize Department of Fisheries pointed out that 15,000 people in his country benefit from conch, especially in small coastal fishing villages, and that the conch population there reproduces well. “We put a lot of effort into managing the conch as best we can, because we recognize the importance of this fishery.”
But many Caribbean countries lack the regulations or the resources for enforcement, NOAA says. In its review, the agency concluded that more action is needed to halt population decline: “There is very little evidence that regulatory mechanisms will be able to reverse this trend in the foreseeable future.”
At the hearing, Stephen Smikle, Jamaica’s chief fisheries officer, said what is needed is more support from the US government to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of the conch. Higgs points out that listing the species as threatened could catalyze such funding. “It suddenly becomes a priority for conservation and rebuilding populations.”
More funding to help hatchery operations expand and maximize production could also make a difference, Kough says. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a pretty bad wound. It’ll help stop the bleeding a little bit.” But the only way to repopulate billions of shells is through natural reproduction, he adds.Ultimately, Kough hopes NOAA will list the species: “Fingers crossed that it has great public support and creative thinking to help these animals into the future.”