Inside a Queen Conch Nursery in Puerto Rico That May Help Save the Iconic Species

Cynthia Barnett (Atlas Oscura, Hakai Magazine) writes about the region’s first and only locally-run hatchery— Naguabo Queen Conch Hatchery in Puerto Rico—which provides a boost for both fishers and the imperiled royal sea snail.

[Many thanks to Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín for sharing the link to the video below of “Tour of the Naguabo Queen Conch Hatchery in Puerto Rico” by the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.] See excerpts from Barnett’s article below:

AS THE BLUE-AND-WHITE SKIFF CUTS across the bay to Naguabo on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, fisherman Gabriel Ramos is the first to come into focus, waving his arm in excitement. The closer the boat skips to shore, the more details emerge: dive tanks clanking in the hull, gaffs for catching pulpo (octopus), spearguns for pargos (snappers). Only at the dock does the day’s haul become visible, in two buckets at the bottom of the boat. One is filled with slabs of carrucho—queen conch. Carrucho is a prized catch. Selling for US $14 per pound, it’s the priciest item in the fish markets along El Malecón de Naguabo, the nearby waterfront promenade known for fresh seafood.

Today’s conch prize, however, is not the sliced white flesh heaped in the first bucket. Ramos is pumped about what looks like a clump of shelly sand, sealed in a sandwich bag and floating in seawater at the bottom of the second bucket. It’s a string of conch eggs.

A mother queen conch lays half a million eggs over a day or so in a gelatinous strand that, unfurled, would stretch longer than a semitruck trailer. She camouflages the strand with sand as she goes, fussing it into a tidy pile that could pass for a bit of coral or shell. Laying nine or so masses each season, she will send nearly five million larval conchs a year into the sea. Fewer than one percent will survive to grow into the Caribbean’s favorite marine snail, with the glossy pink shell and sweet meat eaten across the 26 countries in its range.

A queen conch shell can grow as big as a football. Its handle-like cavity gives it a similarly satisfying grip, though it weighs closer to a brick. That heft makes queen conchs easy to spot and catch—so easy that overharvesting for their meat and shells has collapsed populations throughout their habitat in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The United States was the first to lose its queens, which once thrived at the southern tip of Florida. They have not rebounded despite Florida’s ban on commercial conch fishing since 1975 and all harvesting since 1986. After the state ban, the big sea snails were listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to monitor and limit trade. The losses have only hastened. Scientists have warned that the once-massive conch herds of The Bahamas—which exports nearly all the conch meat consumed in the United States—have now thinned below the minimum number needed for the animals to breed.

Saving the species will take bold actions, scientists say, from shrinking the harvest to protecting greater swaths of the seagrass beds where conchs gather in herds to graze and breed. That is no less true in Puerto Rico, where the animals are in decline but slightly better protected than in The Bahamas—with a closed season each summer to allow the conchs to reproduce. Ramos represents another key piece too often missing from the conservation puzzle: giving the fishers a serious role in recovery efforts, and compensating them for that work just like every other expert involved.

Ramos, one of an estimated 800 fishers in Puerto Rico who dive for carrucho as a main source of income, is part of this new reciprocal model that pays him more for collecting eggs than he earns from harvesting conch. Scuba diving over a patch of seagrass this morning in about 15 meters of water, Ramos grabbed a live queen conch—destined for market until he saw that it was a breeding mother. A sandy egg pile lay beneath her shell. Instead of slicing out the carrucho meat with his knife, Ramos teased out a quarter of the egg mass with his fingers, slipped it into the sandwich bag, and returned the conch to her remaining sea-bottom brood.

At the dock, still clad in his wetsuit, Ramos hands up the bucket with the conch eggs as if it holds a donated organ on its way to a transplant. Conservation biologist Raimundo Espinoza grabs the bucket and carries it into an aging dockside building. The two-story complex is home to the Naguabo Fishing Association, one of about 40 public-private fishing cooperatives in Puerto Rico that support members by buying and marketing their seafood. Naguabo’s is one of the island’s oldest fishing co-ops, founded more than half a century ago by the grandfathers of some of the fishermen who belong to it today.

Parts of the complex and dock are oddly twisted or missing—reminders of Hurricane Maria’s direct hit in 2017 and the risk of future storms. But behind their repaired seafood market and gear-storage lockers, members of the association have responded to the hurricane with an addition their grandfathers might not have imagined: a hatchery for growing their own queen conchs.

Half indoor lab, half open-air courtyard, the Naguabo Queen Conch Hatchery burbles in an orderly network of pipes and filters, deep tanks and shallow basins, beakers and carboys swirling with algae. In the lab, Ramos and Espinoza peer through a microscope at sections of the egg strand under the keen eye of Megan Davis, a marine research professor at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute who designed the hatchery and oversaw its construction by the fishers in 2021. Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries’ Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program that supports fishing and marine aquaculture, the hatchery is a partnership among the fishing association; Davis’s queen conch lab at FAU; and Conservación ConCiencia, a Puerto Rico–based NGO founded by Espinoza to tackle poverty as a means to long-term marine conservation. [. . .]

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