Conch in Crisis

October 1st marks an important date for fishermen throughout Belize: Opening of conch season. Together with lobster, harvesting of conch contributes over 90% of the total value of exported seafood products in Belize. This number continues to decline due to the current distressing status of conch in this country. George Kumul of the Caribeľa Fishing Cooperative, reported that on the first day of the 1999 conch season only 905 conch were caught, compared with the usual 2000. That is more than a 50% decrease_things do not look promising for this critical fisheries species. The following contains background on the primary conch species of Belize, the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas), why they're important, and what can be done to save them.

The Queen conch is a member of the Phylum Mollusca, and the Class Gastropoda, which includes snails and slugs. This group is very diverse and includes over 40,000 species, with the majority of species having a spirally coiled shell made of calcium and a head that includes eyes located on their tentacles. Conch inhabit areas of the main barrier reef, patch reef, reef crest, and back reef. These creatures get around on the sea floor via a muscular foot that is covered in cilia and mucous. Conchs have a very complicated digestive system, feeding primarily on plankton, and expelling wastes from the gut located near the gills.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
As previously mentioned, the Queen Conch is a critical fishery resource in Belize and is an important source of protein in Belizean diets. The fishing industry has historically been a major contributor to the Belizean economy, providing jobs to many. For decades, Belize was known as the largest conch exporter in the world, but in the late 1970's, there was a severe decline in catch. Unfortunately this decline became the trend and open and closed seasons for conch fishing were set in place, opening October 1st and closing June 30th. Despite these regulations, catch has not recovered to the original population. It is presumed that conch has been taken illegally by fishermen from neighboring countries and by nationals fishing "out of season" or catching "undersized" conch. Furthermore, damage to the reef inevitably effects conch, which are sensitive to even small amounts of pollution.

With the current state of the conch fishery, it is obvious that change must happen soon. Despite the positive role that marine reserves such as Bacalar Chico and Hol Chan have played in establishing "no-take" areas and zones with carefully regulated fishing, perhaps further protected areas should be explored. Conch populations have successfully recovered in certain areas of Mexico, where portions of the coastal zone have been closed for several years_is this an approach that Belize may have to consider? Moreover, currently the size limit set for conch is not adequately protecting juveniles. Data from a Hol Chan Marine Reserve report (1992) shows that over 40% of all legal sized conch were immature.

Ultimately, it is critical that a viable fisheries plan be developed and implemented now, so that future generations of Belizeans, particularly fishermen, will not lose a resource that their livelihood greatly depends on.

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