Conch remains on the menu, no harvesting

The federal fishery managers will not list queen conch on the endangered species list, but harvest of it in United States waters will remain prohibited.

National Marine Fisheries Service will formally announce today the agency will not list the species as either endangered or the lesser dire category of threatened. The ruling will be listed in the Federal Registry as of Wednesday.

Federal fishery managers ruled that the listing on the endangered species list is not warranted because there is a “high level of harvest” of queen conch across its historical range throughout the Caribbean and world, said National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Bob Hoffman said. Conch is still legally harvested in Bahamas, Nicaragua, Belize, and Turks and Caicos.

In March 2012, the environmental group Wild Earth Guardians requested the federal government list queen conch under the Endangered Species Act. After a more than 12-month status review of the species, federal fishery mangers ruled the listing was not warranted.

The lack of a listing on the endangered species list is welcome news for local restaurateurs who sell conch fritters, conch steak, conch salad and other conch delicacies. A listing of “endangered” would have definitely meant prohibition of importation of it into the country and the threatened status could have blocked importation, fishery managers said.

Monroe County is dubbed the “Conch Republic,” and the mascot for Key West High School is the “Fighting Conch.”

“This is a relief for me,” said Joe DeConda, who owns the Cracked Conch Cafe in Marathon. “My plan B was to start a spaghetti house. A lot of people would have been disappointed.”

The cooks at the Cracked Conch Cafe, which has been in business for 34 years, prepare conch about 20 different ways, including Conch Marcella and Conch Benedict, DeConda said. The restaurant serves 350 to 400 pounds of conch a week in height of tourism season and 200 pounds of week in the slow times, DeConda said.

“People love it,” DeConda said. “Conch fritters and conch chowder are staples in Monroe County. It’s like Key lime pie.”

Two years ago, Florida Keys State Rep. Holly Raschein successfully pushed a bill through the legislature that called on the federal government to maintain the importation of queen conch.

Decades of overfishing nearly wiped out the queen conch (Strombus gigas), prompting the government to prohibit its commercial harvest in 1975.

Based on concerns from Monroe County citizens, recreational collecting in state waters was prohibited in 1985, and in federal waters in 1986.

Humans predation in mere decades nearly wiped out the slimy, lumbering mollusk that has been around for 65 million years.

Nearly 30 years of research and efforts to repopulate the ocean with conch — which included farm raising them and teaching them to hide from predators — have failed and the species still struggles to survive in the Florida Keys.

At the peak of the commercial harvest in the mid-1960s, fishermen harvested an average of 250,000 conchs annually in the waters off the Keys and Bahamas, with a peak of 1 million taken in a single year.

In 1987, the population diminished to about 28,000 adult conchs in the nearshore and offshore waters from Key Largo to Key West. The population has rebounded to about 80,000 today, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) scientist Gabe Delgado, who, along with fellow FWC scientist Bob Glazer, conducts annual surveys of conch in the Keys.

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