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Conch Season Closed Until 2008 Because of Overfishing

July 30, 2007 — In an attempt to prevent a collapse of the territory's conch fishery because of overfishing, officials have announced that the conch season will remain closed until Jan. 1.
"It has not been unusual around the Caribbean to have fisheries collapse due to overfishing," said David Olsen, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department.
The seasonal closure normally runs July 1 through Oct. 1. The season will only open in January if Planning's Environmental Enforcement Division can certify that no significant illegal harvest has taken place during the closed period, Olsen said.
Once reopened, the catch will be limited to 50,000 pounds a year across the territory. Once this quota is reached, the conch season will close until the following year. The sustainable harvest is 60,000 pounds, Olsen said.
The closure is necessary because St. Croix commercial fisherman began exceeding sustainable levels in the 2000-01 season. The amount caught that year hit 150,000 pounds, Olsen said.
By the 2005-06 season, the commercial harvest was four times the sustainable level, he said. Recreational fisherman also depleted the conch supply: Olsen put that figure at about 100,000 pounds a year.
Much of the over harvest is attributed to the export of conch from St. Croix to Puerto Rico. Conch on Puerto Rico's west coast sells for $14 a pound, while the normal price on St. Croix runs around $4 a pound.
The problem is attributable to St. Croix because St. Thomas and St. John fishermen aren't that interested in conch fishing, Olsen said. He put the St. Thomas and St. John harvest at about 5,000 pounds a year for the last 20 years.
The department is trying to make it as painless as possible for the fishermen, Olsen said. He hasn't heard from any of them yet because the news about the extended closure is just getting out, he said.
"I'm sure it's going to be negative," Olsen said.
While St. Thomas and St. John fishermen have joined together for the good of the fishery, most fishermen on St. Croix are still fragmented and are not yet buying into protecting the fishery resource, he said.
Fishermen will still be required to report monthly catches. A series of meetings on the conch fishery will be held in September.
A revision of the territory’s fishing law is currently underway. It will include limitations on export of conch and other ocean-bottom creatures such as lobster and reef fish. This revision will also address imports during closed seasons.
Overfishing of conch fisheries has consistently led to resource collapse and, in the case of Florida, long-term resource loss, Olsen said.
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