Animals

Conching: Traditions Threatened

Traditions

In a large bowl, add one pound of fresh conch, sliced and diced. Half a bell pepper, diced, one small onion, diced, and one small tomato, diced. Squeeze the juice of one orange, one lime, and one lemon into the bowl. Lastly, mince one habanero and one Caribbean bird Chile. Add to mixture. Salt to taste and voila! You have made traditional Bahamian conch salad.

It is no secret that traditional conch salad is a Bahamian delicacy that comforts the hearts and minds of many. It has crossed country borders and cultural boundaries with just one spoon to the mouth of an eager tourist. Bahamians and tourists, young and old, all crave the taste of conch in some form. 

Queen conch (Strombus gigas) is a sea snail (mollusk) found throughout Bahamian waters, the wider Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. It is used to make many traditional Bahamian dishes, like conch salad, conch fritters and crack conch. 

‘Conching’ is a term Bahamians use to describe the harvesting of Queen conch. It is the action of free diving in the ocean to retrieve conch from the ocean floor. Conchs are usually found in shallow waters. Making them easily accessible to local fishermen.

Free diver discovers conch graveyard during a ‘conching’ expedition.

Conch has been a part of The Bahamian culture and diet for decades. However, recent data suggests that the Queen conch’s population rate has decreased significantly throughout some parts of the Bahamas. 

Threatened

According to a 2014 status report released by National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commercial harvesting is just one of the many threats the queen conch faces today. The report gathers information from all the countries known to have queen conch in their waters and listed nine threats to the species existence. These threats include:

  • Commercial Harvesting
  • Limits to Reproduction & Recruitment
  • Population Connectivity & Genetics
  • Water Pollution
  • Habitat Stresses
  • Parasites
  • Natural Mortality
  • Predation
  • Climate change
Empty conch shells line the ocean floor off of Bimini Island, Bahamas. Some fishermen take the animal out of its shell at sea and discard the shell. This makes it difficult to distinguish juveniles from adults

“Conch is heavily overfished,” Kristen Johnson said. 

Johnson is an ocean conservationist and a Bahamian citizen, whose consumer experiences led her to believe that many fishermen and consumers are unaware of the damage caused by harvesting and selling conch at a juvenile stage. 

“Quite frankly, I don’t buy from people who are selling juvenile or baby conchs, if I see them take it out of the shell; simply because I feel like I am encouraging them,” Kristen said.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to marine seaman, Kranston Simms, whose hase witnessed it firsthand. He works for the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF), a government agency responsible for patrolling Bahamian waters.

“I have seen people bring in conch with thin flared lips,” Simms said. “The law [only] says it should be flared but I personally know the thickness of the lip is important as well.”

Simms isn’t the only one concerned about the specificity of conch regulations in the Bahamas. 

The Bahamas National Trust, a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve and protect the natural resources of The Bahamas, launched a campaign titled “Conchservation”. The campaign hopes to gather enough data on conch populations in the Bahamas that will encourage the Bahamian government to change the current legislation. 

The Bahamian fisheries legislation of 1986:

  • Prohibits conch harvesting using scuba.
  • Allows harvesting using hookah with a permit.
  • Requires conch to have a “Well-formed flared lip.”
  • Limits non-commercial exports to ten pounds per person.
  • Prohibits commercial export of conch or conch by-products without a license issued by the Department of Fisheries.
  • Limits foreign sports fisherman with a valid sports fishing permit to 10 conchs per person on a vessel.

The legislation does not specify a shell length, an average weight or lip thickness. 

Could this be the problem?

(This article is the first of a three part article series)

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