Police suspect restaurants, but no proof
The latest arrest for conch poaching in the Cayman Islands occurred Sunday in West Bay.
But even law enforcement officials question whether the real suspects in these types of cases are getting away with crimes.
‘The majority of these guys are (selling conch) to support a drug habit, some are doing it to live,’ said Department of Environment Marine Enforcement Officer Mark Orr. ‘We would like to prosecute those who are buying, but it’s very hard.’
Conch is considered a food staple in the Cayman Islands and is prepared several ways. The shell fish appear on many restaurant menus around the islands.
The 39-year-old suspect arrested this past weekend was in possession of 45 conch; 40 more than the per-day maximum prescribed by law per person.
During conch season, which runs from 1 November to 30 April, anyone is allowed to take five conch per day from Cayman Islands waters. The catch limit for a single boat is 10 conch a day.
‘Due to the amount of conch this man had, it’s highly likely that he was supplying people or restaurants and chances are they were buying more than they are allowed,’ Royal Cayman Islands Police Sergeant Everton Spence said. ‘Restaurants should be reminded that this is a criminal offence.’
Several men have been arrested after being caught hauling large numbers of conch shells ashore on Grand Cayman in recent years. In December 2007, two men driving a van in East End were arrested with 64 conch. A couple months before that, a 60-year-old man was arrested hauling 94 conch from the water on the beach near Old Prospect Road.
In October 2008, another man admitted in court that he took 60 conch and 16 lobsters from a wildlife replenishment zone so he could obtain money for drugs.
Mr. Orr said the DoE has a group of ‘regulars’ that marine enforcement officers and police are aware make their living by taking conch, lobster, turtles and other marine life in excessive quantities or out of season and selling it. However, catching them in the act of making a sale is difficult.
‘It’s very hard to follow somebody who’s on a bicycle out of a remote area,’ Mr. Orr said. ‘Once they realise they have a car following them, they’ll just duck off into a bush.’
If a poaching suspect is successfully followed to a location, whether a home or restaurant; officers must then observe a sale taking place outside the structure or obtain a warrant to go inside. That takes time and once court documents are issued, the deal is often done.
‘We get inside and we couldn’t say whether (the conch) were taken from the water that day, or where they had been sold,’ Mr. Orr said.
The DoE has pushed for changes in the National Conservation Bill that would allow officers, in certain circumstances, to enter businesses or homes where poachers have been tailed to without first obtaining a warrant. The Conservation Bill is still being debated in Cabinet and could come before the Legislative Assembly later this year.
Wildlife preservation laws, including the establishment of limited seasons for conching, lobster fishing and turtling have been established after severe drops in the population those types of marine life was recorded by the Department of Environment.