Jamaica Sounds Reopening Note of Queen Conch Fishery

KINGSTON, Jamaica, May 11, 2001 (ENS) - The lucrative Jamaican Queen Conch fishery opened again this week more than two years after it was closed under a court injunction.

Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke made the announcement in April, but the fisheries division was unable to implement the opening until now.

All Island Fishermen's Coop leader Harlan Honeygan says the move has delighted the 2,000 small operators dependent on the conch industry. Thousands of people lost their jobs as a court battle between government agencies and conch exporters stopped the harvest of more than a million kilos (1,100 tons) of the shellfish delicacy annually.

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Bed of conch in the Tropical Atlantic Ocean in 1987 (Photo by G. Wenz courtesy U.S. National Undersea Research Program, Caribbean Marine Research Center)
A part of the new conch fishery rules, the closed season on conch that ran each year from June 30 to January 1 has this year been moved to July 1 to October 31, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) says.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Aaron Parke says the closed season was instituted to allow the conch population to recover from the ravages of fishing. "If Jamaica is to maintain a healthy conch population, surveys must be done and reaping controlled," Parke said.

This is done through a strict program of monitoring, protection and control via a quota system that was developed by local and international scientists to preserve the Queen Conch. The species is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Jamaica is a signatory.

The listing allows regulated trade. Jamaica must prove that there are enough conches to support trade, but budget constraints mean the fishing industry itself collects the data that determines its catch quotas.

An abundance survey due last year was put on hold because there was no fishing. Parke said that due to a shortage of funds, the government utilizes the resources of the fishing industry to aid its sampling, which in turn determines the quota given to those fishing for conch.

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Conch rests in a bed of seagrass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Photo by Heather Dine courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Quota limits are reduced each year allowing for fewer conchs to be reaped until a new survey is done. The last survey was done in 1997.

In 1999, DYC Fishing, the largest conch exporters here, sought an extension to its 1998/99 quota, and its ally Sea Food and Ting sued to continue fishing into the closed season.

The companies took these legal actions after the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, now the National Environment and Planing Agency, under instructions from the Ministry of Agriculture, refused them quotas.

The companies retaliated by seeking court injunctions to force the government agencies to permit continued conch harvesting.

Head of DYC Francis Cox argued that the agriculture minister had no authority to restrict the reaping of conch.

Noting that the draft bill covering the allocation of quotas had not been enacted, the Court of Appeal ruled that Jamaican laws do not require conch exporters to "get permits to export conch."

Forced to comply with the court order, then Minister of Environment Easton Douglas cancelled the reopening of the conch season pending the enactment of new laws to protect the scarce resource.

On December 14, 1999, Douglas tabled the Inland, Marine Products and By-Products Act which included the provision for the granting of fishing licences and implementation of a quota system.

But on January 1, 2000, Cox of DYC Fishing effectively closed the season before it could be reopened with a new injunction to prevent the issuance of conch fishing quotas by the government.

This time Cox argued that by not making him the sole conch processor on the island, government had failed to satisfy the requirement of the 1999 Inland, Marine Products and By-Products Act.

Honeygan says there is no evidence to confirm Cox's claim that his is the only processing plant that passed the standards set by the European Union when they agreed to import shrimp and conch from Jamaica.

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Sunset in Negril on Jamaica's north coast (Photo by G. Michael Fisher, Images of Jamaica)
Last year in the midst of the battle, the European Union approved the importation of conch and shrimp from Jamaica, potentially quadrupling earnings from the disputed product. Prices for conch are set to move from just over US$4 per kilo to between $8 and 16 per kilo on the export market. Conch currently sells for between US$1.20 and $4 a kilo locally.

On April 18, while not accepting a closed conch season, Cox acceded to the minister's authority and withdrew his injunction, paving the way for the reopening of an industry that earns an estimated US$20 million a year.

While agreeing with Cox that allowing the minister to decide quotas is far from ideal, Honeygan is firmly against Cox becoming the only processor on the island, a position shared by many of the conch industry's long time players.

The position taken by Cox, a naturalized Nigerian, has not gone down well with many like Bunny Francis, the man credited with starting conch fishing in Jamaica after it was banned in Florida in 1985. Francis is incensed that a "foreigner wants to control the entire industry."

"This would be giving one man far too much power to set the prices, and decide who sells what in the industry," Honeygan agreed.

In addition to crippling the island conch fishery for local fishermen, Cox's injunction has led to large scale poaching. One fisherman who declined to give his name says local boats have been participating in the illegal reaping and export of conch to the Dominican Republic.

"They are catching the conch and taking it to Dominica and selling it to boats at sea," the fisherman said.

Estimates are that more than US$60 million in foreign exchange earnings has been lost in the two and half years the industry has been closed.

More than 40,000 men depend on fishing here, Honeygan said, and each is responsible for the livelihood of another 15 members of his community.