Environmental watchdogs are clamping down on poachers amid concern that the conch population in the Cayman Islands has plummeted.
Enforcement officers reported two “significant incidents” involving poachers taking almost 300 conch in the past month. It is illegal to take conch in the summer months. In conch season, from 1 November to 30 April, the daily limit is five per person or 10 per boat.
The Cayman Islands Department of Environment says those laws are in place to protect the species for future generations, and warns that poaching is equivalent to theft.
“We understand that many people are without work due to the downturn in the economy, but that is not an excuse to destroy the balance of our natural environment by stealing,” said Mark Orr, the department’s chief enforcement officer. “We must be vigilant because at this rate, our children and grandchildren will not have the luxury of diving for conch, or enjoying a delicious conch meal in open season, because there simply won’t be enough left.”
Mr. Orr also warned restaurants that it was illegal to purchase conch in the offseason, as there is not enough to support a commercial fishery.
The department’s queen conch survey for 2013 showed a sharp decline from the previous year. Researchers have been tracking conch density at more than 800 shallow water sites around the Cayman Islands since 1988.
The conch population declined over that time from 0.9 per 24 square-metre survey site in 1988, to 0.3 this year.
John Bothwell, senior research officer at the DoE, said there was natural variance from year to year. But he said poaching was one of the major reasons behind the overall decline.
“The decrease in conch density and an increase in the number of conch found in individual poaching events has given the department cause for concern,” Mr. Bothwell said.
He said one high-level poacher could have a drastic impact, clearing several hundred conch from the ocean floor.
Unscrupulous operators could be fuelling the problem by buying conch from poachers.
“As the cost of imported conch and the demand for quality seafood has risen, the market for conch, legal or poached, has increased. Like with other thefts, if there was not a market to receive stolen goods, there would be less theft,” Mr. Bothwell said.
The impact of the global recession and the rise in unemployment in the Cayman Islands have been cited as reasons for an increase in poaching.
Mr. Bothwell said he sympathised with those who genuinely struggled to feed their families, but insisted poaching conch was not a victimless crime.
“When poachers are arrested with over 100 conch, they are not poaching to feed themselves,” he said. “They are poaching on a commercial scale to sell their stolen catch.
“Poaching is often seen, including by poachers, as a victimless crime. They try to justify their activities by reasoning that ‘at least I’m not breaking in and stealing from anyone’.
“Unfortunately, they and others fail to accept that poachers are stealing from us, from anyone who has an interest in being able to continue to go and collect conchs legally, a desire that their children, nieces and nephews will be able to go and collect conchs legally.”
Recent cases suggest that high-level conch poachers often have other criminal convictions, including drug-related offences.
Mr. Orr urged the public to report cases of poaching.
He added: “In the last month, we have had two significant poaching incidents, one with 156 conch and one with 119 conch.
“In both cases they had other illegally taken marine life as well, and in one case the offenders kept some of the more attractive conch shells, perhaps for sale to tourists.
“Everyone has an obligation to obey the law and I hope that individuals and local businesses will assist us in reporting this kind of illegal activity.”
Report poaching at 916-4271 or 949-8469.