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Conch ban set to go beyond March 2020 - Writing was on the wall, says marine biologist

Published:Tuesday | February 26, 2019 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju/Gleaner Writer
Marine biologist Dr Karl Aiken

Analysis of data of the conch population off Jamaica’s coast indicates that the ban on the fishing, sale and export of queen conch (Genus strombus) will be extended well beyond the near one-year timeline announced by the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries last Friday. It could take years before the conch stock is replenished to commercially viable levels.

“It is an inescapable biological fact that conch take between four to five years to mature. This means that the conch closure may extend for considerably longer than one year,” marine biologist Dr Karl Aiken told The Gleaner yesterday. “It is not quite bust yet, but bad enough that it had to be closed for a while.”

Writing on the wall

Aiken, who for more than two decades has been a member of the13-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Authority of Jamaica delegation, says the depletion of this marine resource comes as no surprise to the four aquatic and marine specialists on that august body.

“We sorta saw the writing on the wall over the past couple of years, where the first thing we saw that signalled that something might go wrong in the near future was what I call the clumping of fishing efforts,” the senior lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, Mona, revealed.

Data from the short study, done in conjunction with consultant veterinarian Dr Winthorp Marsden, one of four conch experts on the CITES body, was disturbing, Aiken said.

“When we ran the pictorial plotting of where these boats had been fishing during conch season, all of them were gathered in areas not far from the cays, near the centre of the bank. And each year, we noticed that they were fishing at the same place,” he explained.

When the scientists shared this information with the fishers, explaining the likely implications for the sustainability of their livelihood, they argued that their short-term economic gains trumped the environmental concerns.

“They refused to take our advice, and we made a note that something bad was going to happen because they refused to spread out the fishing effort. It was concentrated in like a 20-square-mile area, and the Pedro Cays is humongous. The entire area is like two-thirds the size of mainland Jamaica,” the marine scientist said.

Dramatic decline



However, it was the dramatic decline in conch stock between the 2015 and the November 2018 surveys conducted by experts in the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries that informed the ministerial order on the ban. Having conducted a total of six surveys, they had more than enough historical data on which to peg the ban.

Aiken explained: “There were some areas where there were moderate stocks of conch in 2015. During the 2018 survey, them don’t even find one so-so conch in some of those areas, not even one. No conch at all were seen for 300, 400 metres, with three or four of them diving together, covering vast areas during each dive, and that signalled, certainly to us, especially if you overlap the data, including pictorial data, just how serious a decline had taken place.”

The initial ban on the fishing, sale and export of conch takes effect from March 1, 2019, to January 31, 2020.