Wed | Sep 18, 2019

How the conch stock went bust

Published:Sunday | February 24, 2019 | 12:24 AMChristopher Serju - Gleaner Writer
File
André Kong, one of Jamaica’s leading fisheries experts.
File André Kong, one of Jamaica’s leading fisheries experts.

An imminent ban on the once-flourishing conch industry from which Jamaica earned as much as US$600 million in foreign exchange per annum has placed the industry on the brink of collapse.

The Government announced a sudden close season to take effect from March 1, 2019 to January 31, 2020.

The rationale for the drastic decision was informed by a comprehensive assessment of the conch population on the Pedro Cays, conducted last November. It showed conclusively that the crustacean had been overfished, almost to the point of no return.

For Jamaica, the situation is so bad that one year might not be enough for the population replenishment in the Pedro Cays, our primary harvesting area for the largest export of queen conch from the Caribbean, for a resumption anytime soon.

“It’s bad, very bad,” André Kong, director of fisheries, confirmed when The Sunday Gleaner sought answers.

While foreign poachers have played a role in depleting the conch resources, overfishing by licensed local industrial players has been identified as the main contributory factor. Conch sales along Jamaica’s south coast beaches have been ongoing in defiance of the close season, with very little sanction for delinquent fishermen who defy the law.

The far-reaching ban could have a devastating multiplier effect on individual livelihoods, as well as entire communities. It comes just over a month after National Geographic reported that conch, long a staple of Bahamian cuisine, was at risk of falling off menus forever. The Bahamian mollusc has been depleted by overfishing, loose regulations and lax law enforcement, the prestigious science magazine warns.

Now Jamaica, like that tourism hotspot, is facing a similar fate. Interests here can learn from the Florida Cays, where overfishing was identified as the main culprit behind the extinction of a once-thriving conch industry by 1975.

It might be a little too late, but The Bahamas, on January 13, served notice it was moving to avert the decimation of an industry on which an estimated 9,000 fishermen are dependent. The Department of Marine Resources announced new measures to protect conch, including the suspension of exports and ramping up staff to monitor and regulate the industry, with immediate effect.

The Fisheries Division is seeking parliamentary approval for supplementary regulations to ramp up sanctions under the recently passed Fishing Industry Act, but is in abeyance because the outstanding regulations are still outstanding.

In addition, negotiations are under way for Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw to meet with Honduran and Nicaraguan government and fisheries officials and broker a deal to stem the haemorrhaging.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com