The annual conch survey is under way and scientists from the Department of Environment are conducting research on the edible mollusk over in Little Cayman.
Data collection in Grand Cayman is complete having been gathered over the past couple of months.
‘We expect the Little Cayman survey will take about a week,’ said Mr. Matt Cottam of the DOE. ‘However clearly that can be dependent on the weather.’
Marine Scientist Mr. John Bothwell has made the conch the subject of his Masters Degree thesis, which he is working on. His studies at Exeter University are being partially funded through the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices’ Overseas Territories Environmental Programme.
‘Once the remaining information comes in I expect to produce a report and this will be forwarded to management at the department’ said Mr. Bothwell.
Strombus gigas, or the broad leaf conch as it is known to Caymanians, is the subject of catch restrictions.
A closed season operates from 1 May through 31 October and during open season the daily catch is limited to five conchs per person or 10 per boat, whichever is less.
In 2005, fishermen in North Side asked for a variation to allow a small amount of conch to be caught during closed season, for bait to catch snappers.
The lagoon snappers normally run in the summer months of July and August when the water can be extremely calm and in fact, some substantial catches (in excess of 100 fish) have recently been made by fishermen venturing out beyond the reef at night off the north coast. The fishermen’s request for a variation was considered but was eventually turned down because the department said data showed the conch fishery was still over exploited and vulnerable.
The annual conch survey has now been going since 1988 and the Caymanian Compass is hoping to get a copy of the data in the possession of the Department to find out just what is happening to the conch population in Cayman.
Mr. Cottam did say ‘there have been some problems with processing the information, because large numbers of survey sites result in zero conch being recorded.’ This, according to Matt Cottam, ‘is not unexpected’ because of the random nature of the sampling. ‘Scientists are looking for conch all over the place in Cayman. They are not simply going to the traditional conch beds.’
This wide survey technique has thus far made it difficult to come to reasonable conclusions; however that has changed over the past few years.
‘The methodology now exists to come up with productive analysis and that is what John Bothwell is currently focused on,’ says Mr. Cottam.
Stewed conch and sometimes raw marinated conch has featured in the diet of Caymanians for many years.
Persons who head up to the Batabano area in West Bay will, if they look closely, find that whole stretches of the shoreline to the North of Morgan’s Harbour are made up of vast piles of old conch shells. These middens, which appear in the area known as the barcaderes, must have been put down a long time ago because large red mangrove trees have now grown on top of some of these piles.
These conch piles in the West Bay district may relate to information contained in certain old books that reference the Cayman Islands.
At least three separate sources provide compelling evidence that Cayman was once renowned for pink pearls and they were a valuable source of income for Caymanian fishermen.
Between the years 1904 and1905 conch pearls were listed in one UK Parliamentary Report as one of the chief exports of the Cayman Islands, bringing in 216 pounds sterling, compared to 423 pounds for the rope making industry. In the account of Capt William Kennedy who visited the Cayman Islands on HMS Druid in 1885, he said of Grand Cayman: ‘Very beautiful pink pearls are occasionally found in the conch shells. These pearls are formed in the same manner as oyster pearl. They are of an oblong shape, and of a lovely rose colour. The price varies from five to ten dollars; but some specimens are worth a great deal more.’
It would appear that if Cayman was to build a reputation for these rarities, it would follow that huge numbers of conch must have been harvested during those times.
On the website (Pearl-Guide.com) which bills itself as ‘the largest pearl information source,’ it says that ‘no one has yet devised a method for culturing conch pearls, so everyone you see will be a natural pearl. Therefore, they are extremely rare and valuable. It is estimated that only one in 10,000 conchs produces a pearl, and less than 10 per cent of those are of gem quality.’
A good quality conch pearl fetches in excess of $2,000.