Clampdown on conch poachers

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.

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  1. I think the situation is even worse than this.

    When I first moved here in 1982 I used to go out sometimes with Captain Marvin on a North Sound snorkelling trip.

    The boat would stop and everyone was asked to put on look for conch. Everyone bought back 3-5 conch each in about 15 minutes.

    If one repeats the same trip today the entire boatful of passengers can only find 3 or 4.

    Likewise Eden Rocks and Devils Grotto used to be beautiful dive sites. Live coral and you were surrounded by yellow tail snappers and seargeant major fish the moment you entered the water.

    Now this dive site is just dead coral with hardly any fish.

    There used to be massive Nassau Groupers by Sunset House. Not now.

    The same is repeated all around the island.

    In just 30 years our fish life has been almost wiped out.

    if we don’t give it a chance to recover there will be nothing left for our children.

  2. Every time something like this happens, somebody comes with the nonsense of ‘well, is just a poor bloke trying to put food on his family table’, since many are entirely oblivious to the fact that most of this money is used for purchasing drugs.

    If ‘put the food on his family table’ was the factor, our population of feral chicken and green iguanas wouldn’t be so abundant.

    Deterrence matters. A law that punishes with one month of forced labour per conch/lobster/fish poached should be written and enforced.

    Forced labour defined as in working in road repairing, beach/ironshore cleaning, or digging wells, for 14 of every 24 hours, in a 7-days/week routine.

    The number of poached animals should be the factor determining the individual sentence, i.e., if 10 perpetrators poached 100 specimens, each perpetrator should receive a 100 month-length sentence of forced labour.

    The law should be tight as in not accepting excuses, legal manoeuvring, and all alleged excuses and arguments must be dismissed in advance. The sentence should not grant parole or be reduced, regardless of all circumstances.

    Sounds harsh? Apply it, and you will see that after three or four cases, poaching will vanish or become just a rare occurrence.

  3. Deterrence matters. A law that punishes with one month of forced labour per conch/lobster/fish poached should be written and enforced.

    Forced labour defined as in working in road repairing, beach/ironshore cleaning, or digging wells, for 14 of every 24 hours, in a 7-days/week routine.

    ‘Slave labour’ is appearing on the agenda of a lot of people now…any excuse will do.

    Any minor offenses or petty crime committed by low-income, unemployed people is being suggested as reasons for sentencing ‘slave labour’ convictions.

    ‘Make them work for free’ is the cry, at least in British jurisdictions…and of course, ‘free labour’ must involve the use of force if it is not voluntary.

    Does any of this sound eerily familiar ?

    In Britain, its ‘make the benefit recipients work for their dole’…pennies per hour and way below the legal minimum wage.

    Is this the new strategy for businesses to become profitable and maintain profitability in this new, emerging global economy ?

    After all, the main cost for any business is the labour factor…and only less affluent people really work for a basic living.

  4. @Geraldo,
    I agree with your logic, but the penalties are already out there;-
    The courts can order a HALF MILLION dollar fine and a year in prison, as well as forfeiture of the vessel and equipment.

    The proposed marine conservation law which was aimed to be what was needed to create a sustainable environment, was watered down significantly, but if the law is not enforced effectively, the protection won’t be there.

    Another problem is the concept of Grandfathered rights, it is too easy to forget that the ratio of grandchildren to grandfathers is often significant and while grandad used to take 20 fish in a week with little impact, if 15 grandkids each take 20 fish there is soon no fish to take. Perhaps the right should be regarded in a similar way to a possesion – Only one of the grandkids gets the silver pocketwatch.

    Victimless crime?
    Well, the DOE and CITA estimate that there are about 460 THOUSAND dives each year on Cayman, which even if some dives are done by locals and residents is easily worth over 30 MILLION dollars to the economy – JUST the dives! – Add Hotels, Bars, Restaurants and Shops and you will see that poaching impacts EVERYONE and is a direct attack on one of the fragile pillars on which the Cayman Economy rests. Put a fish on the plate and it feeds one person, leave it on the reef and it helps employ many people, week on week.

  5. @Ricardo Tatum:

    Well, you are familiar with the old saying, ‘Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.’

    Don’t feel sorry for criminals, as they didn’t feel sorry for those animals or for compromising the future of law abiding citizens, Caymanians and the whole ecological network that keeps life possible in this planet.

    @ Andy Gray, yes, you are right. If only those laws were enforced…

    Months ago I presented my ideas elsewhere in regards of treating the poaching of stingrays at Stingray City as what it is: a crime against the national patrimony, economic sovereignty and heritage of the Cayman Islands, hence an effective and wilfully induced threat to the national security of this country, thus comparable to treason.

    But perhaps some criminal-friendly ‘it’s just a victimless crime’ people would think I am too harsh.