by Shawn Cumberbatch

Another species as synonymous with Barbados’ waters as flying fish and sea eggs appears destined for the endangered list.

Authorities here are so concerned about the future population of queen conch, which is harvested these days more for its shell than meat, that they are contemplating restricting access to fishers, Barbados TODAY learnt. Investigations today revealed that the latest national assessment of the island’s Queen Conch population has produced unwelcome news — about three quarters of the catches of this marine mollusk are immature, there is a resulting “rarity of mature adults”, and breeding areas are unprotected.

It is understood that these and other concerns were recently conveyed to officials attending a regional meeting in Panama, where Chief Fisheries Officer Stephen Willoughby, and University of the West Indies fisheries biology and management expert Professor Hazel Oxenford updated officials on the status of Barbados’ Queen Conch fishery.

With an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 of these creatures harvested annually, a summary of the national report revealed the main “issues of concern” as “the low density of conch, rarity of mature adults, high proportion of juveniles in catch, breeding aggregations not protected, fisher livelihoods at risk, (and) high cost of monitoring and management”.

As a result of these problem areas, Barbados is said to be considering a series of mitigating measures to protect the creature, known scientifically as Strombus Gigas, including establishing a conch fisher association, restricting fishing access, encouraging stakeholder engagement in monitoring and management decisions, strengthening legislation in support of management, and supporting continued research.

An assessment of the queen conch population found that the existing species was 79 per cent juveniles, with an estimated 43,000 conch on the south coast and approximately 8,300 on the west coast.

There are an estimated 50 “conch fishers” in Barbados, with the majority fishing in the summer months, the research found, while there was an “unknown number” of recreational fisher/divers.

As it stands, Barbados’ conch fetches more for its shell than meat, with its meat primarily privately sold to individuals and restaurants for between $8 to $16 per pound.

On the other hand, depending on the size, there are about 20 “vendors” selling conch shells mainly to visitors at prices ranging from $2 to $80. Barbados’ laws currently allow the “personal exportation” of three conch shells without a permit.

The Ministry of Agriculture has listed the east and southeast coasts of the island as the main conch harvest areas here, but said fishers have also traditionally pursued it in Oistins, Silver Sands, Consett Bay, Crane, Foul Bay, Long Bay, Martin’s Bay, Sam Lords, Skeete’s Bay, Tent Bay, Bath, Stroud Bay and Maycocks Bay.

Additional research by Oxenford found that “conch populations on the shallow shelf of Barbados are patchily distributed, severely depressed, and overexploited”.

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