The Queen Conch’s Gambit

Archaeologists don’t know exactly how many Taíno survived the enslavement, massacres, and diseases that marked the following centuries—though genetic sampling reveals significant Indigenous ancestry in contemporary Puerto Rico. But Taíno stories and artifacts stress the importance of conchs: in their fishing and diving traditions; in the infinite piles of conch they harvested, ate, and honed into tools and jewelry; and in their small spirit objects sculpted into three points—originally inspired by the pointed top of a conch shell.

Evidence of conch overharvesting begins in their time, Keegan says. But the export pressure that precipitated collapse dates to the British Empire that gave the queens their English name. A fashionable 18-year-old when she ascended the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria loved the coral-pink shells. (Alive on the seafloor, the conchs are not glossy pink, but muted in a dark fuzz of algae.) She employed her own cameo cutter to make her brooches and commemorative keepsakes; they helped inspire a frenzied demand. Before the end of the century, British scientists warned that the molluscan monarchs were being overfished.

“The profit when converted to cameos and other objets d’art is enormous,” Sir Augustus J. Adderley, Bahamas fisheries commissioner to Britain, wrote in 1883. “I am under the impression that this fish is not so plentiful as it used to be, and that its protection is desirable.” He wanted to advise a closed season to avoid fishing out the queens, “but I fear it is not practicable.”

Political practicalities have eclipsed science ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, biologist Andrew Kough has helped quantify the “serial depletion” of queen conchs in the export-heavy Bahamas, research that also identified actions that could save them. Those include a broader network of no-take reserves, harvest limits based on shell thickness, and ultimately, a ban on exports. Bahamian government officials have vowed support for each of those measures. But regulation is a hard sell in a nation with some 10,000 artisanal conch fishers. Without it, Kough and other scientists say, the Bahamas will follow the Florida Keys and lose the fishery altogether.

Science may be able to raise healthy conchs and return them to the sea, Kough says. But there is no evidence that releasing cultured juveniles could replicate the epic larval journeys seen in the wild. The scale of natural breeding as billions of larvae drift for kilometers in the currents “far exceeds anything we could do in aquaculture,” he says. Likewise, there is no saving a conch population if it falls below the minimum threshold for reproduction, a number directly tied to fishing pressure.

Davis agrees that hatcheries alone can’t save the queens. But she believes aquaculture can take some pressure off wild conchs—and that its role in building a conservation ethos is significant. The Naguabo hatchery includes an outdoor touch tank where schoolkids and tourists can pick up a queen, maybe getting a glimpse of its long foot or tentacled eyes. A Bahamian team is now outfitting a mobile hatchery on Exuma based on Naguabo’s design, to be run with a similar model by local fishers and community members. “Regulation is really the only other avenue—and that’s up to the countries, to have the management in place and the national parks and marine protected areas,” Davis says. “But to see the fishermen bring back a significant batch of eggs, and then to see those healthy conchs metamorphose in 21 to 28 days, feels like a huge accomplishment.”

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