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
“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.
“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.
“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, 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.
“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, 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
The plight of the Queen Conch which is facing overfishing
It is difficult to imagine Belize without the queen conch. But that threat is real because the conch population is under pressure due to over fishing. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the situation is dire; Belize exports more than seven million dollars of conch yearly and the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen depend on this. Now, Area Three of the Fisheries Map of southern Belize, is of particular concern, the area is vast and the queen conch is abundant but monitoring is difficult. In part two of our story on the conch fishery, Isani Cayetano reports on the challenges faced by the Fisheries Department and other agencies while patrolling the waters of Glovers Reef.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The Trade Database for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) indicates that between 2008 and 2017, approximately 6.2 million pounds of conch meat were harvested for commercial purposes, a majority exported to the United States.
“Glover’s Reef is considered one of the highest priority areas in the Mesoamerican Reef System, providing nursery and feeding, as well as a unique habitat for lobster, conch and finfish.”
Commercial exploitation of conch in Belize began in the early 1960s. It has since grown to become one of the country’s largest overall exports. According to the Statistical Institute of Belize, in 2017, it was worth 7.3 million Belize dollars. Undoubtedly, high demand for produce puts tremendous pressure on certain areas where there is limited enforcement, particularly in Area Three on the Fisheries Map.
Hampton Gamboa, Belize Fisheries Department
“As it relates to enforcement in the particular area of Area Three which encompasses the northern part of Dangriga, in the area of Southern Long Caye to as far south as Coco Solo area which also extends into Area Four, is that we have been doing an utmost best to ensure that we boost up presence in this area. It has been well documented that that is one of the areas that we have seen a decline in our conch fishery in the area in particular.”
With almost three thousand fishermen operating across all eight areas identified on this map, it’s easy to see how most of them would attempt to swarm the locations where conch are abundant.
Nicholas Poot, Conch Fisherman
“Glover’s Reef dah noh wahn big area. We dah wahn small area fu di amount a fisherman, di amount a boats because we have new boats coming in, new faces. Fishermen weh I noh know dehn get license. How? I noh know. Some man who di help dehn out get dehn license. But all ah dis, you know, we need fu talk about this.”
It is a conversation that needs to be held urgently, in light of what has taken place in the Bahamas and Jamaica where conch seasons have come to an abrupt end due to overfishing. In Jamaica, a ban on conch is set to go beyond March 2020. An analysis of data on the conch population off its coast suggests that the prohibition on the fishing, sale and export of queen conch will be stretched beyond the one-year timetable announced by government. It could take years before the conch stock is replenished to commercially viable levels. In Belize, the writings are on the wall for Area Three.
“We have more presence of fishermen in that area in particular as the challenge with it is that Area Three is one of those areas that is well off in terms of distance and coverage. It creates some kind of problem in terms of presence. In addition to that, the limited resources that we do have, that we have to work with, we have to ensure that we pool with other entities and do joint operations.”
And that is what brings this team of fisheries and coast guard officers together. With only eighty-five gallons of fuel at their disposal, these men are tasked with patrolling a vast expanse of sea space within a two-week period, using a relatively small, single-engine fiberglass launch.
“In 1996, this location was designated by UNESCO as one of seven protected areas that together form the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage listed site.”
It’s next to impossible to provide complete coverage of the waters surrounding Glover’s Reef.
“Can I ask you perhaps what are some of the observations you’ve made working in this area over the past four years?”
Bernard Harris, Fisheries Ranger
“That one I can’t speak on.”
“They won’t allow you to.”
“Nah. They won’t allow me to speak on that.”
While Harris is not able to speak on his professional observations, what is apparent is that the department is severely under-resourced. It only becomes evident when his patrol encountered seasoned fisherman Leobihildo Tamai who has been fishing here for the past thirty-three years. He received an earful for failing to patrol certain areas of the reserve where it is believed that illegal harvesting was taking place earlier in the day.
Leobihildo Tamai, Conch Fisherman
“The kind of patrol we have is not the [best] patrol. We need to change these officers, we need to change these persons who get involved in this. This is a productive area but the kind of security weh we get, weh we have, is not the proper security. We see that many kind of things happen. Like today, we see a boat gaan up so, fishing the whole morning, come pick up the people there and then come in, like nothing. Like dehn blind, like dehn no sih. I feel really, really disappointed about this because I represent the fishermen from Sarteneja that work in Glover’s [Reef] and all the fishermen come to me and say, “Bwai, weh di go on? You di discourage we and then dehn di allow di other persons to dive eena di reserve. Dat noh fair. Dat is not the correct way.”
Fisheries Department Responds to Conch Quota Concerns
Since the beginning of the week, News Five has been taking an in-depth look at the state of Belize’s conch fishery. There have been serious concerns raised about enforcement of fisheries regulations in various hotspots, including Zone Three in the waters of southern Belize. Tonight, the Fisheries Department responds to those concerns, discussing the existing quota system as well as the assessment of conch stock and its consumption on the local market. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
Central to the sustainability of the conch fishery is a quota system determined by the Belize Fisheries Department. It’s a scientific method used to arrive at a proportional share which is to be harvested during each conch season.
Ramon Carcamo, Fisheries Officer
“The quota system is in existence in Belize for the conch fishery since 2003. It is a compliance that the Department of Fisheries has implemented in Belize to compliment the requirement by CITES, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species. So we have done that and that requirement is to do an assessment, a national assessment ofthe conch population.”
As far as export, Executive Director Amanda Acosta, of the Belize Audubon Society, agrees that the quota is a collective effort involving government and co-managers of the respective zones.
Amanda Acosta, Exec. Dir., Belize Audubon Society
“So conchs, when it comes to exportation, goes through the cooperatives and so there is a quota established by the Fisheries Department which co-managers and Fisheries Department collects data preseason and postseason to the conchs and that data is then used to determine the quota; so a sustainable yield that can be extracted. That is then used at the co-ops to then establish the quota of whatcan be exported.”
The potential issue of conch being over-fished has raised significant concerns about the existing method used to establish the quota. Ramon Carcamo, a Fisheries Officer with expertise in this field, explains the process.
“The key model that we use is the surplus production model which determines the abundance and biomass, meaning what we call the maximum sustainable yield. That is a key, very important reference point that tells us how much conchs is out there and how much can be taken. Now the department then adopts a precautionary approach in determining what is the maximum economic yield. It’s a value or quantity less than what was the calculated primary. From there we then calculate the quota. The quota then comes, it’s estimated which is about seventy-five percent of the maximum economic yield. And so, from that we then distribute the quota to the fishing cooperatives, to the main fishing cooperatives and the fish companies that participate in the conch fishery.”
Of equal concern is that the quota system does not necessarily reflect the total amount for domestic consumption. This may very well add to the notion that conch is indeed being over-fished in our waters.
“We do have local consumption that is largely, it can go unregulated because it’s not going through the cooperatives. It doesn’t even have to go through a landing site and so it’s largely undetermined. It is really based on the consumer and the consumer knowing the product. So if you’re wise and you know your size lengths or your conch shell and the size lengths and the mass that your conch should have. For instance, like your lobster, you know, you have a four ounce limit and those kinds of factors, then you would have to be the wise consumer and know [that] conch is either in season or out of season or this is an undersized conch.”
And that’s where it gets contentious. The Fisheries Department says that it does in fact evaluate the trade of conch internally. To clear up any misconception that the local market is unregulated, the Fisheries Department assures that an evaluation is done once a year.
“When we do this assessment, normally it’s done in August and September, that’s the period that we do the assessment for us to declare the quota in October. While the assessment is done, we also gather data on the catch landings of the different fishing cooperatives. By law, it’s required that each fishing cooperative and company report their previous catches on a monthly basis. In addition, the middle men, who are now selling conchs in a restaurant, hotel or the fish markets, they are obligated also to report that information. We also go and interview these guys to come up with estimates of how many conch are being moved or captured by these guys.”
The Belize Fisheries Department hereby informs all fishers, and the Public, that in accordance with Statutory Instrument No. 54 of 2012, the Honorable Omar Figueroa, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Development will declare the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) fishery closed on April 30th, 2019. This is necessary due to the realization of the Queen Conch quota.
The fishing community is advised that all Queen Conch fishing activities shall cease as of this date until the opening of the fishing season on 1st October, 2019.
The Belize Fisheries Department further advises Restaurateurs and the Public to use, consume and dispose of all Queen Conch meat in their possession on or before April 30th, 2019.
Any person or establishment found in possession of the Queen Conch meat after April 30th, 2019 will be charged and prosecuted in a Court of Law in accordance with the Fisheries Regulations.
The Fisheries Department encourages the Public to report any illegal fisheries activity by calling telephone numbers: 224-4552 or 223-2623.
Re: 2019 Conch Season in Danger of Premature Closure
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Belize Fisheries Department Weighs In on the Quality of the Queen Conch Fishery
One of the concerns that have been raised about the harvesting of the queen conch is the use of the shell size to determine maturity. The Fisheries Department says that while some believe that lip thickness may be a better way to indicate maturity, the method used in Belize is considered sustainable because the conch that is harvested are sub-adult conch.
Mauro Gongora, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department
“The conch that we harvest in Belize is basically sub-adult conch. When you compare conch sizes, shell length and the shell lip thickness that we harvest in Belize obviously it is smaller than the conch that fishers would harvest in Honduras, Nicaragua and perhaps Jamaica. The reason for that is very simple. In Belize, we do not allow the use of scuba gear, so there is just certain depth where the fishers are allowed to fish for conch, which is around our estimate of sixty to eighty feet would be the maximum depth. There are only few fishermen who fish at that depth. When you look at Honduras and Nicaragua where Scuba gear is allowed in the conch fishery, they are diving at one hundred and thirty feet, so most naturally they are able to harvest this large adult spawning conch which has thick lips. So, this is something that we have discussed in detail with conch experts and so far we have not received any negative feedback in terms of the way we are managing the fishery. In fact, I will tell you that later this month we are participating in a conch meeting with Miami which is comprised of the most renowned conch experts of the region, including the U.S.A. The reason we are a part of the regional expert meeting is simply because at the regional scale Belize is recognized as one of those countries that is doing a fairly good job at managing our conch fishery. When you look at the performance of the conch fishery throughout the season, when you compare the performance with the last five years of the last five fishing seasons, the performance mirrors the last five years. So, we are very confident at this point in time that our conch fishery is doing fairly well.”
Conch Season Closes 2 Months Early
If you like conch fritters, conch soup or conch ceviche, you may want to enjoy these dishes before the end of this month. That is because the conch season is closing two months early. The Belize Fisheries Department says that this is because the quota for the queen conch fishery has been met. So, what does this mean for fishers and consumers? Well as of May first, all conch fishery activities must stop and you should not have or consume the conch meat. Restaurants and consumers are advised to use, consume or dispose of all queen conch meat before April thirtieth or face fines and court action. Reporter Andrea Polanco spoke with the Fisheries Department today to find out what this closure means for the industry.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
Belize’s conch season will close two months early. The queen conch fishery normally closes on June and reopens October first but the Fisheries Department says that this year the season will close on April thirtieth because quotas have been met. Fisheries Officer Mauro Gongora says that there is no reason for concern and that this early closure also spells good news for when the season reopens.
Mauro Gongora, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department
“It is not unusual the closure of the fishing season is based on a quota system that we have implemented for a number of years now and once the quote is realized, even though the season is officially open it needs to close because the quota has been achieved. There is no reason for concern. Our fishery is one of the best managed fisheries through-out this region and the reason why we establish those catch quotas is simply because after we have gathered the field surveys that is what we use to establish the catch quotas. So, you will see that in some years it may be higher and afterwards it may go up and that is normal. That is how the fishery performs. There is nothing wrong with us closing the fishery two months ahead of time. What it does, in addition to protecting the conch fishery, the stock itself, it allows for conch to grow even larger in shell length and in biomass. So, what would happen is that come October of this year the fishers will be able to harvest not only more conch but larger individual conch so that will give them higher biomass and what it translates into is basically more money in the fishers’ pockets.”
Gongora says that every two years a national underwater survey is carried out to gather conch density and abundance, which they combine with other data to determine the total allowable catch limit of the conch fishery. He explains why the quota of about seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds of queen conch (meat) was met early.
“Well, it is a function of the availability of conch biomass out at sea. The more conch that is out there, the more conch fishers are able to harvest. So, it is a set amount that is set every year and once that amount has been fished out then we need to close the fishery. So, we in Belize work with a figure of seventy-five percent but we can extend it a little higher if that is something that the fishery can support.”
Gongora says that while they are not very concerned about over-fishing, the illegal fishing is still a growing problem. The Belize Fisheries Department maintains that the conch fishery is being managed in a sustainable way.
“We are not concerned about over fishing in Belize. What we are concerned about is illegal fishing. So we work together with Coast Guard and we work together with our co-management partners. We want our community to know that our conch fishery is very valuable to us. It is a fishery that brings in foreign exchange in the range of almost four million U.S. dollars and that is eight million Belize dollars. So, from a socio-economic standpoint the conch fishery is hugely important in Belize. We are managing a conch fishery that, in our view is a healthy, vibrant fishery and is being managed sustainably.”