Shedd Aquarium has teamed up with the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) as part of a group of conservation organizations (collectively known as partners in “conchservation”) studying queen conch, Lobatus gigas, in The Bahamas to understand why local populations are in decline. As an ecologically, economically and culturally important species in The Bahamas, Shedd’s research on queen conch aims to inform management practices that keep an iconic dish on restaurant menus and help protect populations into the future.
The queen conch is a large, herbivorous, marine snail found throughout waters of the Caribbean, but is a threatened species because it is heavily harvested. The Bahamas are one of the last strongholds for queen conch in the Caribbean, but even Bahamian populations are in decline. In 2015, Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Andy Kough began surveying queen conch in The Bahamas to describe factors that make a favorable conch habitat. Dr. Kough also began tracking changes in population abundance in exploited areas to create strategies to develop a sustainable fishery for conch.
Fishing can negatively influence a population outside of just decreasing abundance. Fishermen often target the largest individuals to maximize their profit. However, the disappearance of the biggest animals can reshape a population. Maturation can happen earlier and at smaller sizes, leading toward a population without large individuals even after fishing stops. This is negative for future fishermen and for the animals themselves because, in many species, the largest and oldest animals produce the most offspring.
These changes may be happening in Bahamian queen conch populations. In comparing one of the oldest marine protected areas in The Bahamas with unprotected portions, Dr. Kough’s research shows the queen conch population inside a protected area is much older on average than the conch found elsewhere. In addition, the team found that conch within heavily fished areas are smaller than those in a protected area. Further research will elucidate the degree in which current fishing practices might be reshaping conch populations in The Bahamas.
In an effort to save conch populations in The Bahamas before it is too late, the BNT began a multifaceted awareness-building campaign called “Conchservation.” Its goal is to educate Bahamian audiences that could have an impact on the local conch fishery, with its primary focus on teaching conch fishermen how they can continue to harvest conch without hurting the population long-term. Though primarily a field research partner, Shedd Aquarium also contributed to the campaign through the creation of the below educational video. In tandem with the BNT’s newly released music video, “Conch Gone,” partners in conchservation seek to deter unsustainable exploitation, which is negatively impacting populations. Viewers, including United States audiences, can also sign a petition to encourage the government to take legal steps towards a sustainable future for queen conch.