Lobster, fish, turtles and humans all eat conch. It's a hard-shelled mollusk. Queen conch is important to the balance of the ecosystem and the cycle of life in the ocean. But its popularity and over-fishing in the Florida Keys put the queen conch on the list of endangered species.
For the past decade scientists have tried to restore the conch population with limited success. Producer Zulima Palacio visited a leading scientist whose persistence and original approach is starting to show results.
TV News report transcript
Bob Glazer is determined to save the queen conch in the Florida Keys, a region many people have called the Conch Republic.
BOB GLAZER, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, FLORIDA FISH & WILDLIFE CONSERVATION COMMISSION
"The goal is to be able to restore the population to a level where there can be a limited recreational fishery."
These south Florida waters were once blanketed with queen conch. But over-fishing pushed them onto the list of endanger species. Harvesting of queen conch has been illegal since 1995, but the recovery of the conch population has been slower and more difficult than expected. Scientific studies found a major cause: the conch stopped reproducing near shore, for reasons unknown.
So for the last four years, Bob Glazer, a research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has moved about 3,000 queen conch from near shore to at least eight kilometers farther into the ocean.
"We found that we can take the conch near shore, transplanted off shore and within about four to six months they will begin to reproduce again."
With his research associate Gabriel Delgado and volunteer Jan Blacksman, Bob Glazer collects non-fertile adults near the shore line. He tags them, creates a file on them and carefully, puts them back into the ocean, far from shore.
Then, he delivers some juvenile conch to the place from where he had taken the adults.
“When you take out a big grazer like conch there is a tendency to affect a lot of ecological processes so we want to replace them with juvenile conch that can grow up again and then we can take them back out from that location…like a rotating crop."
Dr. Glazer has favored relocation of the conch, over raising them in controlled situations. It is more costly to produce them in hatchery he says; encouraging them to reproduce in the wild makes them stronger genetically.
"We've been transplanting for about four years and we transplanted about 2,400 to 3,000, which is the equivalent of 25,000 to 250,000 hatchery animals, with much less effort than it would take to produce hatchery animals."
Since Dr. Glazer's program started four years ago, the conch population has increased 300 percent. Yet despite all this assistance, the conchs are still unable to reproduce near shore. Scientists are also looking at the impact of chemical pollution on the conch.
"The implications for this type of study are tremendous, if indeed we find that there are some chemicals in the near shore environment that negatively impact the reproductive output, the implications for all kind of species are endless. So conch in this case really represents the canary in the coalmine.” [a warning signal]
Dr. Glazer hopes that one day the recreational harvest of queen conch in the Florida Keys will be possible. But he warns that if commercial fishing of the mollusk reopens too soon, the queen conch could disappear in just a matter of days.