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Queen conch populations declining, conservation efforts lagging

The queen conch, famous for its majestic shell, is on the decline, threatening local fisheries in the Caribbean. The high demand for queen conch has now led to a trade restriction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Several countries have even closed their queen conch fisheries in order to help the conservation of the species. But scientists and conservationists have struggled to find the best ways to revitalize conch populations.

But now, new research has found that the key to recovering queen conch populations lies in understanding the wide variance within the species. Looking at the queen conch as one mass group doesn’t aid the species, as conch are unlikely to travel to rehabilitate other areas of the ocean.

Researchers even discovered distinct genetic differences among isolated pockets of queen conch, suggesting that there is very little mingling or mixing among them.

Understanding how the conch are fragmented throughout the Caribbean is a necessary first step to finding and implementing effective conservation efforts.

An international team of collaborators, led by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Marine Conservation Program, conducted a study that gathered data on 19 different queen conch sites in the Caribbean to see how local subpopulations fared.

The study was published in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

Researchers collected a tissue sample from 643 different conches spanning from the United States to the Bahamas. A DNA analysis of the samples revealed that there were differences in the conch genomes.

“This tells us is that it’s not just one giant, well-mixed population of queen conch throughout the entire Caribbean. If you’re in two sites that are not well connected by ocean currents, the chances of your queen conch populations being connected and interrelated are pretty low,” said Nathan Truelove, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Marine Station.

The results of the study show that conservation efforts will have to be tackled at local levels, and that treating the species as one intertwined group with blanket management techniques could prove ineffective.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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