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Mar 18, 2019

Belize’s 2019 Conch Season in Danger of Premature Closure

In Belize, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, the queen conch is under threat due to over fishing. If you are a seafood lover, you will know that the queen conch is one of three seafood exports that fetch significant foreign exchange for the country. The conch season is underway from October first, 2018 to June thirtieth, 2019 and it is expected that more than eight hundred thousand pounds will be harvested for export to the international market. Now, Glover’s Reef provides the perfect habitat for the conch. News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed out there recently for a first-hand look at what is taking place in respect of fisheries law enforcement. Tonight, we have Part One of a two-part investigative report.  Here’s that story.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

It’s daybreak on Middle Caye, one of six sandy islands on a sunken ridge located near the southern edge of Glover’s Reef Atoll.  The buttery sun radiates a tangerine hue across the morning sky, as it quickly begins to warm up this tiny landmass.  A quartet of officers, including fisheries rangers and coastguard personnel, gathers beneath one of several wooden structures.  A daily brief is convened and details of an upcoming patrol are being discussed amongst the team.  This station overlooks Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve.

 

Bernard Harris, Ranger, Fisheries Department

Bernard Harris

“Some of the activities that predominantly are done out here are: sports fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling.  But majority of the resorts cater basically to foreign guests which is vital to the economy and the livelihood of this marine reserve.”

 

Collectively, these coral islands form an oval shape.

 

Isani Cayetano

Isani Cayetano

“Glover’s Reef is a partially submerged atoll off the southern coast of Belize.  It forms part of the outermost boundaries of the Belize Barrier Reef and is one of three atolls, including the Lighthouse and Turneffe.”

 

The depth of the encircled saltwater lagoon reveals one of the greatest variety of reef types on this side of the Caribbean, a flourishing ecosystem with hundreds of fish and other aquatic species.

 

Bernard Harris

“Within Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve there are basically five zones.  One: you have the general use zone which is basically predominantly used by sports fishers to conduct fishing.  You have the conservation zone which is basically a no-take zone in which the only type of activity allowed sport fishing, snorkelling or via kayaking.  Within the conservation zone you’re not allowed to do any activity.  And then, of course, you have the spawning aggregate site which is at the eastern lighthouse.  At that site, you’re not allowed to; it is basically a site where Nassau grouper are used to spawn.”

 

It is also an ideal habitat for the queen conch which typically resides in sea grass beds, large sandy plains with swaying grass, associated with coral reefs.  This species of edible sea snail is one of the largest invertebrates native to the Caribbean Sea.  Its meat is a delicacy consumed in salads, chowders, fritters, soup and ceviche and as such remains in high demand on the local and international markets.

 

Nicholas Poot

Nicholas Poot, Conch Fisherman

“You have the shoal and we have conchs eena di deep.  We have the thin one, the thin shell one and yoh have the big, the butta conchs dehn and yoh have the big, thick shell one, the hard back, weh we call.  But like weh I seh, conchs in the reef, we have conchs.  But the rules and regulations, like the three ounce conchs noh, because we have the thin shell weh got the size, but sometimes ih noh got the weight.

 

Nicholas Poot, originally from Belize City, has been fishing and diving these waters since boyhood.

 

Nicholas Poot

“I’m dealing maybe from when I ‘bout fourteen, you know.  Right now I’m forty-six.  That da like thirty-two years now, thirty-two years. And conchs is there.”

Conch is most indigenous to the Bahamas, where very recently there have been renewed calls for its protection.  Environmentalists are clamouring for measures to be implemented, including banning the exportation of conch meat and increasing efforts to address the plague of poaching.  Belize is facing a similar issue, however, it is not yet at a crisis level.  Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the easternmost part of the Belize Barrier Reef and is described as one of the best developed and healthiest reefs in the region.  Using a system known as Managed Access, it is fished by fishermen from Chunox, Copper Bank and Sarteneja.  Lighthouse Reef is co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society.

 

Amanda Acosta

Amanda Acosta, Exec. Dir., Belize Audubon Society

“Conch is actually the primary product that is extracted from the Lighthouse Reef Atoll.  From the data that we have and over the years, we’ve been seeing an extraction of it at a high volume and what we actually have been seeing is that what we have traditionally used which is the size of the shell is not perhaps the best mechanism for determining the maturity.  All of our recent data and science has been showing us that the lip thickness is perhaps a better way of indicating the sexual maturity of this invertebrate.”

 

Under Managed Access, catch is limited through areas established by government using minimum shell size.  As a result, quite a number of juvenile conchs are being harvested across the respective zones.

 

Nicholas Poot

“Sometimes yoh got big conchs, ih thin but ih noh have the weight.  Wih have the medium size, like the thick shell conchs, dehn have more than three ounce.  So that is the difference, noh.”

In Belize, shell length and meat mass minimums are amongst the smallest in the region.  So as to harmonize what is gathered as harvest, short-term measures have been put in place.

 

Bernard Harris

“You are allowed to harvest conchs in the process of market-clean conchs.  They gotta be over three ounces.  You have filleted conchs which [weigh] roughly about two point five ounces, and of course you have unprocessed conchs which has a category of seven point five ounces or above.”

 

Despite these measures being implemented, the queen conch remains under threat.  Historical overfishing by both commercial and extensive artisanal fisheries has led to the depletion of stocks and high quantities of legal catches mostly of juveniles.

Amanda Acosta

“We have found that the volume of conchs being taken out, we have a lot of juveniles, which is not a bad thing.  It’s actually pretty good that you have juveniles, but you have to leave them in order to mature and become reproductive.  What we have seen in our data is that we have a large volume of juveniles which means they’re not getting to adulthood.”

 

Isani Cayetano reporting for News Five.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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