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CITES Gives Hope to the Queen Conch
Photo Credit: Andy Bruckner/NOAA
By Nancy K. Daves
High international demand for marine species is producing increased fishing pressure and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, resulting in significant population declines for many species. An important international trade and wildlife conservation treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), regulates international trade to ensure sustainability of species listed on CITES appendices. An excellent example of the positive impact that CITES can have on a marine species is found in the case of the queen conch (Strombus gigas).
The queen conch is a marine mollusk that inhabits seagrass beds and sand flats in the greater Caribbean region from Bermuda and southern Florida to southern Mexico, Venezuela, and northern Brazil. A source of food harvested since ancient times, the queen conch is a commercially and culturally important species. Queen conch larvae disperse widely throughout the marine ecosystem; therefore, local fishery management plans can have far-reaching implications. Currently, there is no regional fishery management organization in the Caribbean region that prevents over-exploitation of this species.
Landings of queen conch were stable at around 2,200 tons (2,000 metric tons) per year from the 1950s to the 1970s. Harvest increased rapidly in the following decades, leaving most queen conch populations significantly reduced. By the 1980s, conch over-harvest and population declines were widely considered by fisheries managers as an urgent regional problem, and fisheries were closed in many areas. Despite local closures, harvest continued to increase throughout the 1990s, with average annual landings of nearly 33,070 tons (30,000 metric tons). Much of the increase was driven by demand from Caribbean countries, as well as the United States, which imports approximately 80 percent of the annual queen conch catch. In 1992, in response to concerns regarding high demand for the species and declining populations, the U.S. proposed to list the queen conch in Appendix II of CITES. Appendix II species are those species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled in order to ensure their survival. This proposal was adopted during the CITES Eighth Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, Japan.
Photo Credit: Bob Glazer/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Although CITES provided the first legal conservation framework for regulating international trade in queen conch products, many countries continued to express concerns about over-exploitation, illegal trade, and subsequent enforcement problems. These concerns ultimately led to the inclusion of queen conch in the CITES Review of Significant Trade in 1995 and 2001. The review began with a thorough examination of the species’ conservation and trade status, providing multiple opportunities for comment by the exporting and importing countries. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), invested more than $100,000 and obtained a further $200,000 from other sources (U.S. Department of State, Darden Restaurants Foundation). This funding was used to convene regional workshops so that all affected countries understood: 1) the Significant Trade review process, 2) recommendations for training and fishery management capacity building, 3) how the range countries could participate in the Significant Trade Review, and 4) the implications of the findings of the Significant Trade Review process for exporting and importing countries.
Of the 28 queen conch range countries, the Dominican Republic and Honduras were the largest exporters of queen conch; the Significant Trade Review identified them as two of the three countries of "urgent concern" (the other was Haiti). There were 13 countries listed of "possible concern," and the remaining 12 countries included in the review were determined to be "not of concern." The Significant Trade review recommended against accepting imports from the three countries of "urgent concern" until they were found to be in full compliance with CITES. Honduras eventually set a quota for exports and was found to be in compliance with the CITES Significant Trade recommendations. The Dominican Republic decided to suspend international trade until research activities and an updated fisheries management plan are completed. Other countries in the region have taken considerable steps to ensure that harvest and export of queen conch are sustainable. The queen conch’s Appendix-II listing has provided motivation and resources for local and regional efforts towards sustainable trade of the species.
Regardless of these accomplishments, illegal and perhaps unsustainable harvest continues to be a concern. FWS and NMFS enforcement agents, in cooperation with Environment Canada’s Enforcement Branch, discovered that approximately 263,593 pounds (119,978 kilograms) of queen conch, valued at more than $2.6 million, were harvested from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica and illegally transported into the U.S. and Canada between September 29, 2003, and December 31, 2006. An analysis prepared by Environment Canada and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission concluded that this harvest represented 798,000 to 1.05 million individual queen conch. The investigation into illegal trade continues.
Governments of the queen conch range countries and the U.S. continue to share concerns about the legality and sustainability of the queen conch fishery. In August 2008, the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence, and Santa Catalina (Colombia) hosted a Regional Workshop for Improving Queen Conch Collaborative Management and Enforcement in the Western Caribbean. This initiative called for increased attention to regulation and enforcement to ensure compliance with CITES requirements for queen conch.
Nancy K. Daves of the NMFS Office of International Affairs can be reached at email@example.com or 301/713-9090.
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