Free diver fishing for queen conch. Credit: Claudio Contreras, International League of Conservation Photographers.

The queen conch, a marine mollusk prized for its edible meat and its glossy shell, is one of the most economically and culturally important species in the Caribbean. In the past few decades, intense international fishing driven largely by the demand for export to the United States, has led to declining populations that threaten local fisheries in countries throughout the Caribbean. Some countries have closed their queen conch fisheries, and international trade of the species is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But scientists and conservation organizations still have had difficulty determining what it will take for depleted conch populations to recover.

To provide a vital scientific foundation for conservation efforts, an international team led by scientists with the Smithsonian’s Marine Conservation Program—part of the National Museum of Natural History’s Smithsonian Marine Station in Ft. Pierce, Fla.—has conducted a genetic analysis comparing at 19 sites throughout the Caribbean. Their findings, published Sept. 19 in the journal Diversity and Distributions, will help scientists understand how local subpopulations of conch are fragmented throughout the Caribbean, an essential first step needed to develop effective science-driven management plans and practices.

Nathan Truelove, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Marine Station, was part of a large international team overseen by Stephen Box, former director of the Marine Conservation Program. The team found that conch at each site were genetically distinct from individuals at other locations. That suggests that there are multiple population of queen conch in the Caribbean, and that there is little mixing between them. As a result, queen conch fisheries may need to be carefully managed at a local level, as conch from distant locations

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