Problems and possibilities for the conch industry

By Benjamin Flowers
Staff Reporter

A pending legal battle in the United States over importing queen conch could impact the livelihoods of more than 15,000 Belizeans in the short term, but produce long-term economic benefits, according to the Fisheries Department.

Two US-¬based non¬governmental organizations, Wild Earth Guardians and Friends of Animals, are threatening to sue the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA Fisheries over a 2014 decision to not list the queen conch as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Listing the queen conch as threatened would produce more stringent import regulations, while listing it as endangered would result in the US banning the importation of conch altogether.
Both decisions would cause serious economic hardship for Caribbean Community countries which exported some US $185 million worth of conch meat last year to the US. Of this, more than US $4 million worth was from Belize.

Mario Gongora, fisheries officer and coordinator for Capture Fisheries Unit, explained this week that while it is unlikely that the suit would be successful in the near future, a ban on conch exports to the US would hit some 2,750 fishermen and their families, which the department estimates at around 15,000 Belizeans total.

After the direct impact, the employees at the cooperatives who process the conch would be the next to be indirectly impacted.
Gongora explained, however, that the long- term effects of such a ban could increase the competitiveness of the Belizean cooperatives, as well as diversifying their markets, and fetching them a higher price for their conch.

He said that while Belizean conch is the best in the region, largely due to the practices of local fishermen, Belizean conch has not managed to penetrate the Mexican and Central American markets. He noted that the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel areas have a tradition for conch consumption, and could prove a viable alternative to the US market.

“In the French Caribbean, places like Martinique and Guadalupe, Jamaica is getting from one and a half times, to twice as much as we are getting from conch sales in the US,” Gongora said.
“A ban on the US market would force our local cooperatives to up their standards and be able to compete with Jamaica in these territories as well as the EU .”

He added that it would also take updating standards of quality and accompanying legislation to be able to meet international export criteria, but would largely benefit the country once those criteria are met.

The conch season for Belize opens in October every year and closes in June of the following year, but can be brought to an end at anytime if the country reaches it’s national catch quota. In the 2014/¬2015 conch season, Belize exported some 761,524 pounds of conch meat.

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