Sometimes news stories just set off all kinds of alarm bells.
Honduras has apparently learned from Japan’s bogus scientific whaling program, which lets that country’s operators kill 900 whales a year - and sell the meat - in the name of science.
The Honduran government has announced a Queen conch fishery, justified as “a research and evaluation project for monitoring giant snail populations.”
It looks more like a way around restrictions on the fishery.
A lot of people have seen golden Queen conch shells, with their pink-tinged centres and classic spiral shape. They were a popular souvenir of Florida a generation ago, and thrived in waters from Florida to northern Brazil.
They’re considered tasty, and are easy to harvest. Not good for them.
Queen conch aren’t on endangered lists yet, but CITES - the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species - has recommended an embargo on exports from Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. CITES pitches the embargo as a way to support government conservation measures - if there is no market, there is no reason to grab the conch.
It’s loosely observed, and fishers still harvest both for export and local markets - conch soup, with coconut milk base, is a popular item on the Honduran coast.
The government’s research fishery looks like a way to get around the export ban.
Honduras is going to let six ships capture 210 tonnes of Queen conch. About 100,000 conch.
And 95 per cent of the catch is reserved for export, mostly to the U.S.
It’s hard not to be suspicious. If the government wanted to assess Queen conch stocks, it could co-operate with a university or look for grants for a survey. Grabbing 210 tonnes of a possibly endangered shellfish in the name of research seems dubious.
The whole tragedy of the commons theory is lived out vividly here. Serious poverty is a factor. So is the near-total absence of effectively enforced laws and regulations. Why should a small fisherman obey limits on Queen conch catches when people with influence can get access to a “research fishery”? (Or why should a campesino respect a forest reserve, or water source, when others are conducting illegal logging?)
Of course, North Americans shouldn’t be too judgmental of practices that evoke our relatively recent past. We moved to Copan Ruinas from British Columbia. That province built its current prosperity by logging old-growth forests. Wild salmon runs were sacrificed for quick profits for the fishing industry, developers and forest companies. It’s no different than grabbing the last of the Queen conches, except Hondurans are more legitimately desperate.
The theoretical argument for conservation is sound. Manage the resource and you will have sustainable economic activity long into the future.
But the argument didn’t persuade British Columbians. Why should Hondurans, so much poorer, think it a good idea?
It’s great to talk about tourist potential and the economic value of preserving tropical jungles and deserted beaches and coral reefs and vast mangrove shorelines. The economic argument for conservation.
But not realistic. We were in La Moskitia, the vast biosphere in southern Honduras, and it is spectacular - unspoiled nature, beaches, lagoons, fascinating cultures. But the roads are poor to nonexistent, there is no tourist infrastructure and travel is a challenge.
And the Honduran government’s total tourism promotion budget this year is $2.2 million. Destination BC has $49 million to promote one province.
Still, the alternative is grim. The newspaper reported last week that a company had cleared 50 acres of protected mangroves for a new shrimp farm. The story said nothing about investigations, or sanctions. The lesson is to join the gold rush, in conch or shrimp or logging or African palm plantations.
And La Moskitia includes the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But since 2011, the reserve has been in UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list. Illegal logging and farming are factors, according to the UN agency.
But so are the Honduran government’s lack of capacity and “general deterioration of law and order and the security situation in the region.” (It is a popular transit point for northbound cocaine shipments.)
Ultimately, for the Queen conch and La Moskitia and the mangroves and rain forest and so much more, that’s the greatest problem. There are solutions, and perhaps international partners to help. But only if the Honduran government can play a role..