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Sustaining queen conch fisheries and livelihoods in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Queen conch (Strombus gigas) supports a fishery of economic and cultural importance to the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). However, it has become apparent that the fishery is facing increased pressures from sustained fishing practices, driven by local demand and international markets.

Led by TCI governmental departments and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), in partnership with Marine Conservation Society (MCS), this EU-funded project 'Sustaining queen conch fisheries and livelihoods in the Turks and Caicos Islands' aimed to support programmes of work in relation to sustainably managing TCI’s queen conch fisheries, and address CITES requirements for sustainable international trade in this CITES Appendix II listed species.

This 20 month project was urgently needed to better understand the status of the queen conch population in TCI and inform future management decisions by: completing new conch abundance surveys; assessing domestic and tourist consumption; capacity building within TCI government departments; and producing a CITES non-detriment finding (NDF) to determine sustainable trade levels.

Ultimately, the aim was to secure livelihoods and maintain a steady source of income for TCI by safeguarding this valuable component of the marine environment. Project results are currently under consideration and next steps for the fishery will be decided in due course.

Background

The conch fishery is the second most important commercial fishery in TCI, supporting a large export trade (more than $3.5 million USD per year) as well as a domestic market. It has previously provided a reliable and plentiful food resource for TCI, but is now thought to be in decline due to increased pressures driven by local demand and international markets.

Sustainable exploitation of queen conch fisheries presents a broad range of challenges, including the complex biology of the species; vulnerability to stochastic events; uncertainty of catch and effort data; illegal trade; weak surveillance and enforcement mechanisms and unsustainable fishing practices.

The sustainability of the fishery has been threatened by the absence of a comprehensive stock assessment for the species. The extent of offtake through domestic and tourist consumption and under-reporting has made it impossible for managers to optimize fisheries production in a sustainable manner, which caused economic losses to the sector. Therefore, addressing these data gaps was a key goal of this project to provide new information which can be utilised to mitigate the risk of over-harvesting queen conch.

Furthermore, as TCI has CITES extended to it, it was  necessary to fill these knowledge gaps on population abundance and consumption levels to underpin a non-detriment finding (NDF – an assessment of sustainability) for this CITES Appendix II listed species, ensuring that future international trade is at sustainable levels and meets the requirements of the Convention. CITES is a complex agreement and capacity building is required to enable the TCI government to meet their obligations under CITES.

The results of this project provide TCI with the ability to assure a future not only for queen conch and the livelihoods which depend upon it, but also contribute to wider regional management efforts underway in the Caribbean for the species.

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Overall aim

To promote sustainable utilization of queen conch, while preserving the environment and enhancing the social and economic livelihood of local people.

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Project timeline

  • May 2022 – May 2023: Underwater visual surveys to determine queen conch population status on TCI.
  • July 2022 - February 2023: Domestic consumption surveys including interviews with key stakeholders on the nature and extent of conch harvest for local consumption.
  • July 2023: Survey of businesses involved in queen conch trade.
  • September – October 2023: Delivery of training for TCI government and statutory agency staff on the implementation of CITES.
  • November 2023 – January 2024: Recommendations to support the recovery of the queen conch fishery: ensuring future sustainability.
  • November 2023 – January 2024: Completion of CITES non-detriment finding (NDF, an assessment of sustainability) for export of queen conch using the gathered information.

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Work packages/objectives

Objective 1: Study to compare underwater visual survey (UVS) methodologies

Working with TCI government, two methods of UVS for queen conch have been compared in a short study: Video methodologies for deep water surveying of Queen conch (Strombus gigas): A comparison study in Turks & Caicos Islands. This technical report has been published providing a comparison of the video camera tow method (a peer-reviewed methodology used previously in Saint Eustatius and Anguilla, for which training was provided to TCI government staff by a technical expert) and the underwater drone method.

Costs, reliability, habitat impacts, and ease of use were assessed, and the results informed our subsequent UVS survey work.

DFMRM presented on the results of the paper at the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) Conference (28 to 31 August 2023). 

Two photos. The top photo is of a camera array on a boat (image courtesy of R. Austin). The bottom image is of an underwater drone on the seabed (image courtesy of J. van Rijn).

Objective 2: Estimate queen conch abundance on Caicos Bank ready for integration with other scientific data required to determine the queen conch population status in TCI

Extensive queen conch abundance surveys have been conducted to determine a population estimate of queen conch on Caicos Bank, using dive surveys and towed video array surveys (to reach depths beyond the limitations of diving). The results have been considered alongside other project outputs in the completion of a CITES non-detriment finding for the export of queen conch from TCI (Objective 5).

Watch our video (available below and through YouTube) to see a towed video array survey of Queen Conch in action. 

This video was produced by the field team at the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources Management (DFMRM) of the Turks and Caicos Islands, who completed the last of the field surveys associated with the project in May 2023. This was the rounding off of one full year of field work for this project, which resulted in 100 underwater visual (dive) surveys and 100 video tow surveys conducted throughout the Caicos Bank.

Objective 3: Determine estimated levels of unreported local harvest

A sociological survey was designed and implemented to determine harvest levels of queen conch for domestic and tourist consumption across TCI.

With the help of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), 35 stakeholder engagement interviews were conducted to inform the design of our domestic consumption survey. 

The survey implementation phase began in August 2022 across the main islands of TCI (Providenciales, Grand Turk and South Caicos) and concluded by the start of March, 2023. Overall, 433 resident surveys; 207 tourist surveys; and 90 business surveys were completed both in-person and online.

The results have been considered alongside other project outputs in the completion of a CITES non-detriment finding for the export of Queen conch from TCI (Objective 5).

Conch in baskets

Objective 4: Complete a review of CITES implementation in TCI

JNCC, in partnership with the UK CITES Scientific Authority for plants and a CITES enforcement expert, have completed a critical and expert review of CITES implementation in TCI.

This has involved a field visit to TCI in July 2023 to meet with key government departments and authorities and review the CITES systems, policies and processes in place. This also included a detailed analysis of current and anticipated trade, including a risk assessment to identify enforcement priorities.

The Review of CITES Implementation report has been finalised and shared with TCI authorities and departments for their consideration. To address capacity building needs, two tailored two-hour CITES training sessions were delivered by JNCC, RBG Kew, Defra and UK Border Force staff for relevant TCI officials in October/November 2023.

CITES-logo.jpg

Objective 5: Develop a CITES non-detriment finding (NDF) for queen conch fishery

JNCC, in collaboration with DFMRM and DECR, have combined project results with existing information on queen conch to produce a CITES assessment of sustainability (Non-Detriment Finding – NDF) for the export of queen conch from TCI, including a series of recommendations regarding future management for the fishery. Project results are currently under consideration and next steps for the fishery will be decided in due course.

Photograph of a shell on a seabed (image from Shutterstock)

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Project partners

  • This project was developed at the request of, and in partnership with, DECR (Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources) and DFMRM (Department of Marine Fisheries and Resource Management) in TCI.
  • Marine Conservation Society (MCS)

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Funding

This project was funded by EU RESEMBID (Resilience, Sustainable Energy and Marine Biodiversity). The programme supports the sustainable human development efforts of the 12 Caribbean Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs). It is implemented by Expertise France and financed under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF) Caribbean OCT Regional Programme.

Series of logos relating to the funders (RESEMBID)

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Acronyms and glossary

CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

DECR: Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources

EDF: European Development Fund

DFMRM: Department of Marine Fisheries and Resource Management

JNCC: Joint Nature Conservation Committee

MCS: Marine Conservation Society

NDF: Non-detriment finding – a fundamental requirement under CITES; it is a test of sustainability without which international trade should not be permitted.

OCTs: Overseas Countries and Territories

RESEMBID: Resilience, Sustainable Energy and Marine Biodiversity

TCI: Turks and Caicos Islands

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