Diving deep in Belize

by Jen Chapman, Country Coordinator, Belize

The queen conch (Strombus gigas) fishery in Belize is valued at approximately US$ 3,000,000  per year and engages over 3,000 licensed fishermen nationally. Despite non-destructive fishing methods (free-divers collect conch off the seafloor by hand), seasonal closure of the fishery, and a large network of Marine Protected Areas, the level of extraction has been reported as unsustainable, with a declining population since the 1980s.

Given the importance and depleted-state of this fishery, the Belize Fisheries Department (BFD) is exploring the hypothesis that a deep-water stock of reproductive conch exists in Belize, and if so, whether it acts as a source for the shallow-water population.

The queen conch – a royal specimen but it needs protection

Blue Ventures’ Belize team assisted the BFD in their efforts to identify potential deep-water conch populations, carrying out two surveys in Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. All conch located along belt transects 20-30 metres deep were tallied and measured for shell length and lip thickness. This information is used to determine population size and maturity.

Whilst the first step towards sustainable extraction is to better understand the distribution and connectivity of local conch populations, it is important to remember that the existence of a fully-protected deep-water reproductive stock does not imply that the current rate of extraction can be maintained.