Archaeologists don’t know exactly how many Taíno survived the slavery, massacres, and disease that plagued the following centuries, though genetic sampling reveals significant indigenous ancestry in contemporary Puerto Rico. But Taíno stories and artifacts highlight the importance of conches: in their fishing and diving traditions; in the endless piles of conch shells they harvested, ate, and turned into tools and jewelry; and in their little mind sculpted three-pointed objects – originally inspired by the pointed top of a conch shell.
Evidence of conch overexploitation begins in their time, says Keegan. But the export pressure that precipitated the collapse can be traced back to the British Empire which gave the queens their English names. A fashionable 18 when she ascended the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria adored coral pink seashells. (Alive on the seabed, the conches are not brilliant pink, but muted in a dark fluff of seaweed.) She used her own cameo to make her brooches and memorial keepsakes; they helped inspire frenzied demand. Before the end of the century, British scientists warned that mollusc monarchs were being overexploited.
“The profit when converted into cameos and other works of art is enormous,” wrote Sir Augustus J. Adderley, Commissioner of Fisheries for the Bahamas in Britain, in 1883. “I have the impression that this fish is no longer as plentiful as it used to be, and that its protection is desirable.He wanted to advise a closed season to avoid fishing for queens, “but I fear that is not practicable”.
Since then, political practicalities have eclipsed science. At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, biologist Andrew Kough helped quantify the “serial depletion” of queen conch in the heavily exported Bahamas, research that also identified actions that could save them. These include a wider network of no-take reserves, harvest limits based on shell thickness and, ultimately, an export ban. Bahamian government officials have pledged support for each of these measures. But the regulations are a tough sell in a country with some 10,000 artisanal conch fishers. Without it, say Kough and other scientists, the Bahamas will follow the Florida Keys and lose the fishery altogether.
Science might be able to breed healthy conches and return them to the sea, Kough says. But there is no evidence that releasing cultured juveniles can replicate the epic larval journeys seen in the wild. The scale of natural reproduction as billions of larvae drift for miles in the currents “far exceeds anything we could do in aquaculture,” he says. Similarly, there is no saving a Queen Conch population if it falls below the minimum reproductive threshold, a number directly related to fishing pressure.
Davis agrees that hatcheries alone cannot save queens. But she thinks aquaculture can bring relief to wild conch and its role in building a conservation ethos is important. The Naguabo Hatchery features an outdoor touch tank where school children and tourists can pick up a queen, perhaps catch a glimpse of her long foot or sprawling eyes. A team from the Bahamas is currently outfitting a mobile hatchery in Exuma based on the Naguabo design, which will be run with a similar model by local fishers and community members. “Regulation is really the only other way – and it’s up to countries to decide to have the management in place and national parks and marine protected areas,” Davis says. “But to see fishermen bring in a significant batch of eggs and then see these healthy conchs metamorphose in 21 to 28 days is a huge accomplishment.”