A legal battle in the US is threatening the foreign exchange earnings of Caribbean nations, including Belize. That's because a group of conservationists from the United States are suing their government for its 2014 decision to not list the queen conch as threatened or endangered.

Last week the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) attended the 7th Annual Meeting of the CARICOM-US Trade and Investment Council, where one of the key topics was this threat of litigation. The Executive Director for the CRFM Secretariat, whose offices are located in Belize, attended that meeting. Today we spoke to him regarding this situation. He explained to us why this is of such major concern for the Caribbean region.

Milton O. Huaghton, Exec. Dir., CRFM Secretariat
"Our countries together, we are currently exporting queen conch to the United States, that's the main export market. We and some of our countries also export to the European Union. It is a very important market - United States market for us and we really would not like to have this market opportunity closed and the trade in queen conch disrupted. For that to happen, there would be repercussions down the line. It would cause serious economic dislocation and hardships for many of our fishing communities and fishers who depend upon the queen conch for their livelihoods to feed their children, for their food security, etc. So it is very important, our countries also benefit from the foreign exchange that they earn, hard currency U.S dollars, Euros, whatever it is, from the export of queen conch. It is a very important natural resource for us and there will be significant repercussion, but let me say again that on the basis of the information that we have available, we are pretty confident that this case will not succeed. We will continue to resist it by whatever means we have available. So I really do not want to speculate too much about them succeeding because I think the chances are quite remote."

But despite CRFM's confidence that the American NGO will not succeed in its attempt to ban the importation of the Queen Conch in the US, it is something they say should be closely monitored, due to the far-reaching effects a ban would have on the livelihoods of local fisher folk. The Caribbean region exports US$185 million dollars' worth of conch meat to the US every year. Belize accounts for an estimated $12 million of that. According to CRFM, all the evidence points to the fact that at least in this region the Queen Conch is neither endangered nor threatened.

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Queen Conch Problems

On February 2016, an American NGO called “WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals” notified US officials of their intention to sue several US Government Departments over their 2014 decision to NOT list the queen conch as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The lawsuit could adversely affect the Fisheries sector throughout the Caribbean because the region exports roughly US$185 million worth of conch meat a year to the US.

A listing of the coveted Queen Conch species as “endangered” would result in an outright ban in the US, while a listing of “threatened” would lead to more stringent export regulations. Last week at the 7th Annual Meeting of the CARICOM-US Trade and Investment Council, Officials from the Caribbean Community and the United States held talks in Washington on several Trade concerns, chief among them the treat of the lawsuit. Executive director of Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), Milton Haughton, maintained that a lawsuit is unjustified, as it is based on outdated and erroneous information. However, the NGO which intends to sue has had a 77% success rate in US Courts.

US researchers claim that the litigation could jeopardize industries representing over US$3 billion dollars. US authorities have indicated that they will defend their position on the queen conch even as CARICOM States intend to monitor the lawsuit’s progress. At the Washington meeting, the parties also discussed US measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

CARICOM says the new measures could have significant negative consequences for the export of seafood to the US, since importers would be required to implement new systems to certify that fish products are not from IUU sources. Those same measures could also create opportunities for CARICOM fish products by reducing the occurrence of Illegal fishing by third States and unfair competition, provided that CARICOM receives Aid from the USA to train and bring CARICOM fishing processes up to Par with the new Regulations.