by Larry Smith
A story in the Bahama Journal last week talked about a black market for conch exports. It said Marine Resources Director Michael Braynen was working with US government officials to curb the smuggling of thousands of pounds of conch from the Bahamas to South Florida.
The story originated in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Reporter Alexia Campbell said State and federal wildlife authorities were investigating a network of conch smugglers who evade international rules regulating the commercial trade of queen conch.
According to Campbell, the smugglers buy conch in the Bahamas for resale in South Florida. "They buy it on the black market at $4 a pound in the Bahamas," he reported, "and sell it to local restaurants and markets for up to $16 a pound, which is below market price here.
In the US smugglers face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of illegally importing wildlife and conspiring to illegally import wildlife. If a Bahamian is caught illegally exporting conch he can be fined up to $5,000 or face time in prison.
"US demand for conch delicacies is largely to blame for overfishing and illegal sales," according to theSun-Sentinel. "By 1985, most of Florida's conch had been plucked from its shallow waters, leading to a statewide ban on conch fishing. The United States now is the largest consumer of imported conch, buying more than 80 percent of the conch available for international trade."
The Journal story said Michael Braynen acknowledged that conch populations in the Bahamas were being overfished and that his department was looking at ways to better manage conch stocks. This is despite the fact that conch has been legally exported from the Bahamas for years - almost 600,000 pounds last year alone.
Efforts are currently underway to determine the status and sizes of the stocks, and to review and implement new regulations governing the harvesting of the species. Conch exports were banned until 1992, and since the ban was lifted, there has been a significant increase in conch landings.
In the past few decades, intense fishing pressure has led to the collapse of the conch fishery throughout the region. This has resulted in the temporary or permanent closure of the fishery in Cuba, Florida, Bermuda, the Netherlands Antilles, Colombia, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and Venezuela.
"Closing off legal exports would reduce the pressure on local conch populations," Braynen told me. "Conch exports are still allowed because of the expressed 'necessity' of doing so from fishermen who 'need' the income, after the local demand for conch has been met."
Surely it makes little sense to allow the export hundreds of thousands of pounds of conch meat every year, while complaining about the decline of this key Bahamian fishery.