This past March, I had the opportunity to travel to the Bahamas to shoot a student film. One of my classmates, Hyatt Mamoun, read an article in National Geographic about the decline of the Queen Conch population in The Bahamas. The article states that if the people of The Bahamas continue to fish conch in the same manner (along with the effects of poaching and other environmental factors), conch will be extinct in The Bahamas in as little as 10 years. She decided to make a film about it and recruited the help of myself and 3 other grad students, Kathleen, Beth, and Nick. Needless to say, we did not need much convincing to join the crew. A few days later, we had booked flights to The Bahamas for our spring break!
We spent a week on the island of Nassau, doing everything we could to learn about the state of the conch population. I ran camera for the film along with Nick; Beth ran sound; Kathleen acted as field producer; and Hyatt both directed us and interviewed the subjects. She is currently editing a 24-minute version of her film, which is called Bahamian Queen. (More information and a trailer can be found at her website, https://www.bahamianqueen.com/)
Our first interview was with a local fisherman named Paul, whose family has witnessed the decline of the conch population over the past few decades around Nassau. He described to us that they used to be able to walk into shallow water around Nassau and reach down to pick up a conch of their choosing. Today, conch are found at a minimum of 50 feet deep, and must be fished by compressor diving or free diving (fishing anything while SCUBA diving is illegal in The Bahamas). He taught us about the fishing industry in The Bahamas, as well as the growing issue of poachers from the Dominican Republic sailing into Bahamian waters to illegally fish conch. My favorite part of the week was when Paul took us out on his boat to show us how to sustainably fish for conch. We got in the water with him and filmed him free diving 50+ feet down to the ocean floor. There, he picked up a single conch that we ate straight out of the shell (with a squeeze of fresh lime that he apparently always keeps on board)! We also swam through a giant blob of thimble jellyfish and saw a mother dolphin with a few babies!
While interviewing a biologist from the Bahamas Reef Environmental Education Foundation (BREEF), we learned about the history and biology of the conch population. She taught us that the biggest problem with conch overfishing is that fishermen are not selectively fishing. They take conch off the seafloor that are too young- ones that have not even had the chance to reproduce yet. If fishermen focused on picking only the older conch, the population would be better able to recover. (The older the conch, the thicker the lip of its shell is.)
We also interviewed Popeye, a restaurant owner who only buys sustainably fished conch for his famous conch salad. He showed us how to remove the conch from its shell and dice the fresh fruits and vegetables that go into his delicious recipes!
(Pictured adjacent, Kathleen running sound and Nick filming while Popeye shows me how to get the meat from a conch with a hammer and knife)
In between interviews, we explored every inch of Nassau to film b-roll of the island, find conch shells for sale, and talk to people about their experience with conch.
I think the most valuable thing we all learned about conch by the end of the week is what it means culturally to the Bahamian people. Their entire culture is built on the backs of these slow, pink sea snails, and they are on their way to extinction in this area. The message of Bahamian Queen is not that people should stop fishing for and eating conch, but rather that it needs to be done in a more sustainable way for the sake of the Bahamian economy and culture.
Information on Hyatt’s Bahamian Queen can be found at https://www.bahamianqueen.com/
Since we talked to Paul, he has started a nonprofit of his own, bringing Bahamian fishermen together to fight issues such as poaching: https://www.facebook.com/NationalFisheriesAssociation/
Here is the National Geographic article that inspired the trip: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/01/conch-decline-overfishing-the-bahamas/
Bahamian Reef Environmental Education Foundation: https://breef.org/