[Federal Register Volume 79, Number 214 (Wednesday, November 5, 2014)]
[Notices]
[Pages 65628-65643]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2014-26324]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[Docket No. 1206013478-4863-03]
RIN 0648-XB140


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Notice of 12-Month 
Finding on a Petition To List the Queen Conch as Threatened or 
Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Notice of 12-month finding.

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SUMMARY: We, NMFS, announce a 12-month finding and listing 
determination on a petition to list the queen conch (Strombus gigas) as 
threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We 
have completed a comprehensive status report for the queen conch in 
response to the petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians. Based on the 
best scientific and commercial information available, including the 
status report (NMFS, 2014a), we have determined that the species does 
not warrant listing at this time. We conclude that the queen conch is 
not currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant 
portion of its range nor is it not likely to become so within the 
foreseeable future.

DATES: This finding was made on November 5, 2014.

ADDRESSES: Documents associated with this determination and reference 
list--are available by submitting a request to the Species Conservation 
Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, NMFS Southeast Regional 
Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701-5505, Attn: 
Queen Conch 12-month Finding. The reports are also available 
electronically at: http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/protected_resources/listing_petitions/index.html.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Calusa Horn, NMFS, Southeast Regional 
Office (727) 824-5312.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On February 27, 2012, we received a petition from WildEarth 
Guardians to list the queen conch (Stombus gigas) as threatened or 
endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The petitioner 
also requested that critical habitat be designated for this species 
concurrent with listing under the ESA. The petition stated that 
overfishing is the greatest threat to queen conch and is the principal 
cause of population declines. It also argued that the existing 
regulations are ineffective and unable to prevent the unsustainable and 
illegal harvest of queen conch. The petitioner asserted that biological 
characteristics (e.g., slow growth, late maturation, limited mobility, 
occurrence in shallow waters, and tendency to aggregate) render the 
species particularly vulnerable to overharvest, and that Allee effects 
are preventing the recovery of overexploited stocks. The petitioner 
also argued that degradation of shallow water nursery habitat and water 
pollution, specifically high concentrations of zinc and copper, reduces 
juvenile recruitment and causes reproductive failure.
    On August 27, 2012, we published a 90-day finding with our 
determination that the petition presented substantial scientific and 
commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be 
warranted (77 FR 51763). The 90-day finding requested scientific and 
commercial information from the public to inform a status report of the 
species. We requested information on the status of the queen conch 
throughout its range including: (1) Historical and current distribution 
and abundance of this species throughout its range; (2) historical and 
current population trends; (3) biological information (life history, 
genetics, population connectivity, etc.); (4) landings and trade data; 
(5) management, regulatory, and enforcement information; (6) any 
current or planned activities that may adversely impact the species; 
and (7) ongoing or planned efforts to protect and restore the species 
and its habitat. We received information from the public in response to 
the 90-day finding, and relevant information was incorporated into the 
status report.

Listing Species Under the ESA

    We are responsible for determining whether queen conch are 
threatened or endangered under the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). To 
make this determination, we first consider whether a group of organisms 
constitutes a ``species'' under Section 3 of the ESA, then whether the 
status of the species qualifies it for listing as either threatened or 
endangered. Section 3 of the ESA defines species to include ``any 
subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population 
segment [DPS] of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which 
interbreeds when mature.'' Thus, as an invertebrate, the queen conch 
can only be considered for listing as a taxonomic species or 
subspecies. The species diagnosis for the queen conch has been

[[Page 65629]]

established since its original taxonomic description in Linnaeus 
(1758). While some higher taxonomic changes have been considered, the 
classification as a separate species has not been debated. Therefore, 
based on the best information available, the queen conch (S. gigas) 
constitutes a ``species'' under the ESA.
    Section 3 of the ESA also defines an endangered species as ``any 
species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range'' and a threatened species as one 
``which is likely to become an endangered species within the 
foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range.'' In the context of the ESA, NMFS interprets an ``endangered 
species'' to be one that is presently at risk of extinction. A 
``threatened species'' is not currently at risk of extinction, but is 
likely to become so in the foreseeable future. The key statutory 
difference between a threatened and endangered species is the timing of 
when a species may be in danger of extinction, either now (endangered) 
or in the foreseeable future (threatened).
    We have followed a step wise approach in making this listing 
determination for the queen conch. First we conducted a biological 
review of the species' taxonomy, distribution, abundance, life history, 
biology, and available information on threats affecting the species' 
status was compiled into a status report (NMFS, 2014a). In this report 
we also defined the foreseeable future for our evaluation of extinction 
risk. Then we established a group of biologists and marine mollusk 
experts (hereafter referred to as the Extinction Risk Analysis (ERA) 
group) to conduct a threats assessment for the queen conch, using the 
information in the status report. The ERA group was comprised of six 
ESA-policy experts from NMFS' Office of Protected Resources and the 
Southeast and Southwest Regional Office's Protected Resources 
Divisions, three biologists with fisheries management expertise from 
NMFS' Southeast Region's Sustainable Fisheries Division (SFD), and two 
marine mollusk biologists from NMFS' Northwest and Southeast Fisheries 
Science Centers. The ERA group had expertise in marine mollusk biology, 
ecology, population dynamics, ESA-policy, and fisheries management. The 
group members were asked to independently evaluate severity, scope, and 
certainty for each threat currently and in the foreseeable future (15 
years from now).
    In addition to the ERA group's assessment, we undertook additional 
analysis to help us better consider the species' current status and 
extinction risk, beyond the information in the status report alone. The 
Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) and the Southeast Region's 
Sustainable Fisheries Division (SFD) provided: (1) Queen conch 
abundance estimates; (2) a meta-analysis of factors affecting the 
status and health of queen conch; (3) a mapping of queen conch 
densities and oceanographic currents for evaluating dispersal and 
recruitment of queen conch; and (4) a sustainability index. The ERA 
group did not take into account this information, because it was 
prepared after the extinction risk analysis was conducted. Next, we 
used the information generated by the status report, the ERA, and other 
information to make a final determination on the severity, scope, and 
certainty of the extinction risk of threats across the species' range, 
now and over the foreseeable future.
    Then we determined whether the queen conch qualifies for threatened 
or endangered status throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range. The statute requires us to determine whether any species is 
endangered or threatened as a result of any one or a combination of the 
following five factors: The present or threatened destruction, 
modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; overutilization 
for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; 
disease or predation; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 
or other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence 
(ESA, section 4(a)(1)(A)-(E)). After conducting the five factor threat 
analysis we evaluated the available information to determine whether 
there is a portion of the species range that is ``significant'' in 
light of the use of the term in the definitions of threatened and 
endangered. To do so we followed the final policy interpreting the 
phrase ``significant portion of its range'' (79 FR 37578; July 1, 
2014). The policy states that a portion of the range of a species is 
significant if the species is not currently endangered or threatened 
throughout its range, but the portion's contribution to the viability 
of the species is so important that, without the members in that 
portion, the species would be in danger of extinction, or likely to 
become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range. We 
were unable to identify any significant portion of the species' range, 
where its status is different than that we identified for the species 
rangewide.

Taxonomy

    Strombus gigas is a mollusk in the class Gastropoda, order 
Neotaenioglossa and family Strombidae. Synonyms include Lobatus gigas 
(Linnaeus, 1758), S. lucifer (Linnaeus, 1758), Eustrombus gigas 
(Linnaeus, 1758), Pyramea lucifer (Linnaeus, 1758), S. samba (Clench, 
1937), S. horridus (Smith, 1940), S. verrilli (McGinty, 1946), S. 
canaliculatus (Burry, 1949) and S.pahayokee (Petuch, 1994).
    The queen conch is a large gastropod mollusk that is identified by 
its large, whorl-shaped shell with multiple spines at the apex and by 
the pink interior of the shell lip. The outside of the shell becomes 
covered by an organic periostracum layer as the queen conch matures, 
which can be much darker than the natural color of the shell. Shell 
morphology is highly plastic and environmental conditions appear to be 
a strong influence on shell morphology and growth (Martin-Mora et al., 
1995; McCarthy, 2007). Therefore, shells of the same age can vary in 
size due to habitat and geographic nuances. Characteristics used to 
distinguish S. gigas from other conch in the family Strombidae include: 
(1) Large, heavy shell; (2) short, sharp spires; (3) brown and horny 
operculum and; (4) bright pink shell interior (Prada et al., 2008), as 
well as differences in geographic distribution and maximum size 
(Simone, 2005).

Distribution

    The geographic distribution of queen conch ranges from Bermuda to 
the north, Panama to the south, Barbados to the east, and the Gulf 
Coast of Mexico to the west. The queen conch occurs throughout the 
Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. It has been reported from the 
following countries and territories: Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, 
Anguilla, Barbados, Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Caribbean Netherlands, 
Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cura[ccedil]ao, Dominican Republic, French 
West Indies, Grenada, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Montserrat, Nicaragua, 
Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. 
Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos, 
the United States (Florida), the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands, 
and Venezuela (Theile, 2001). The species has been reported from most 
islands within its geographic range at some time (Appeldoorn and Baker, 
2013).

Diet, Habitat, and Movement

    Queen conch are herbivores and benthic grazers (Randall, 1964; 
CFMC, 2005) that feed on diatoms, seagrass detritus, macroalgae and 
epiphytes (Stoner et al., 1995; Stoner, 2003). Adults forage on 
different types of

[[Page 65630]]

filamentous algae (Ray and Stoner, 1994; Creswell, 1994). Green algae 
(Batophora oerstedii) may be a preferred diet item as higher conch 
densities are correlated with its presence and a conch aggregation was 
noted as modifying movement toward it (Stoner and Ray, 1993). About 60 
percent of juvenile conch diet is composed of seagrass detritus 
(Stoner, 1989b; Stoner and Waite, 1991), with seagrass epiphytes 
providing additional nutrition (Stoner, 1989a). In sand habitat, 
juveniles also feed on diatoms and cyanobacteria that are found in the 
benthos (Creswell, 1994; Ray and Stoner, 1995).
    Queen conch change habitats as they grow. During the early 
planktonic life stage, queen conch larvae (called veligers) feed on 
phytoplankton in the water column. Larvae must receive the right amount 
of nutrition during this stage, or development can be delayed 
(Brownell, 1977). Larvae then settle in seagrass to metamorphose into 
juveniles. These seagrass nursery areas need physical and oceanographic 
processes to ensure larval settlement and retention and abundant prey 
to support early development (Stoner et al., 1998; Stoner et al., 
2003). Larvae settle and bury themselves in the sand until they 
approach a year in age, then they emerge during warmer summer months 
and disperse throughout seagrass (Iversen et al., 1986; Stoner et al., 
1988; Jones and Stoner, 1997).
    Juveniles occur primarily in back reef areas (i.e., shallow 
sheltered areas, lagoons, behind emergent reefs or cays) in areas of 
medium seagrass density, at depths between 2 to 4 m, with strong tidal 
currents (at least 50 cm/s; Stoner, 1989b) and frequent tidal-water 
exchange (Stoner and Waite, 1991; Stoner et al., 1996). In experimental 
conditions, juvenile queen conch actively selected seagrass plots with 
intermediate densities of seagrass biomass. This density of seagrass is 
thought to provide both nutrition and protection from predators (Ray 
and Stoner, 1995; Stoner and Davis, 2010). In one study, all juveniles 
were found within 5 km of the Exuma Sound inlet, Bahamas, emphasizing 
the importance of currents and frequent tidal water exchange on both 
larval supply and their algal food (Jones and Stoner, 1997). Juveniles 
have also been found in deeper, open shelf areas, but little is known 
of settlement dynamics in these deeper waters. Conch nursery areas 
typically occur in shallow seagrass meadows of intermediate densities 
(Jones and Stoner, 1997) and support juvenile conch in densities of 
1,000 to 2,000 individuals per hectare (Wood and Olsen, 1983; Weil and 
Laughlin, 1984).
    Juvenile conch are gregarious; solitary individuals move toward 
juvenile aggregations, and individuals within these aggregations remain 
there until close to adulthood (Stoner and Ray, 1993). Juvenile queen 
conch within dense aggregations have higher survivorship, supporting a 
predator avoidance role of aggregation behavior (Stoner and Ray, 1993). 
Aggregations of juvenile conch are found in water depths of less than 4 
m year-round, peaking in March. Well-defined aggregations can remain 
together for at least 5 months, but they usually last for 2 to 3 months 
(Stoner and Lally, 1994). There may be some seasonality in the 
direction of movement (Stoner and Lally, 1994). Movement of juvenile 
aggregations increased with low food supply, decreased when heavy algal 
mats were encountered, and may temporarily stop during high wave action 
and low temperatures which occur during winter months (Stoner, 1989a; 
Stoner and Lally, 1994).
    Adult queen conch tolerate a wider range of environmental 
conditions compared to the specific habitat requirements of juveniles 
(Stoner et al., 1994). Adults prefer sandy algal flats but can also be 
found in areas of seagrass meadows, gravel, coral rubble, smooth hard 
coral, or beach rock bottoms (Torres-Rosado, 1987; CFMC, 1996a; Acosta, 
2001; Stoner and Davis, 2010). Adult queen conch are rarely, if ever, 
found on soft bottoms composed of silt and/or mud, or in areas with 
high coral cover (Acosta, 2006). Females laying egg masses are 
generally found in coarse sandy habitats or patches of bare sand, but 
occasionally in seagrass (Glazer and Kidney, 2004; McCarthy, 2008).
    Adult conch are often found in clear water of oceanic or near-
oceanic salinities at depths generally less than 75 m and usually less 
than 30 m (McCarthy, 2008). It is believed that depth limitation is 
based mostly on light attenuation limiting their photosynthetic food 
source (Randall, 1964; McCarthy, 2008). The average home range size for 
adult queen conch has been measured at about 5.98 ha in Florida (Glazer 
et al., 2003), 0.6 to 1.2 ha in Barbados (Phillips et al., 2011), and 
0.15 to 0.5 ha in the Turks and Caicos Islands (Hesse, 1979). Adult 
males and females have no significant difference in movement rate, site 
fidelity, or size of home range (Glazer et al., 2003).
    The seasonal movements of adult conch are associated with summer 
mating and egg-laying (Stoner and Sandt, 1992). During the summer 
months, queen conch move from feeding habitats to mating and egg-laying 
habitats in shallow water (Stoner and Sandt, 1992). Several studies 
have reported that adult queen conch move to nearshore habitats during 
their reproductive season, but return to feeding habitats after mating 
and egg-laying (Stoner and Sandt, 1992; Hesse, 1979; Glazer et al., 
2003). These movements are well known and are associated with factors 
like change in temperature, available food resources, and predation. 
This seasonal movement pattern has been documented in Venezuela, the 
U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas (Weil and Laughlin, 1984; Coulston 
et al., 1988; Wicklund et al., 1988; Stoner et al., 1992). Not all 
conch move into shallow waters during the reproductive periods; conch 
found in the deeper waters near Puerto Rico and Florida are 
geographically isolated from nearshore shallow habitats and remain 
offshore year round (Glazer et al., 2008; Garcia-Sais et al., 2012).

Reproductive Biology

    Mating occurs in the summer when adult conch move to shallower 
water to form mating aggregations and find mates as the species is an 
internal fertilizer (Appeldoorn 1988c; Stoner and Sandt, 1992). Mating 
success and egg-laying are directly related to the density of mature 
conch (Stoner and Ray-Culp, 2000; Stoner et al., 2011; Stoner et al., 
2012). At low densities, the probability of encounters between males 
and receptive females is significantly reduced and overall reproductive 
success is impacted (Stoner and Ray-Culp, 2000). The effects of density 
on reproduction are discussed below.
    Queen conch have a protracted mating season, with maximum mating 
and egg laying occurring during summer months (Appeldoorn, 1988c; Berg 
et al., 1992a). Aggregations form in the same location year after year 
(Posada et al., 1997; Glazer and Kidney, 2004; Marshak et al., 2006). 
The length of the breeding season varies geographically according to 
water temperature, but it generally occurs during the months of April 
to October (Avila-Poveda and Baqueiro-Cardenas, 2009), with conch 
copulation occurring both day and night (Randall, 1964).
    Females can store fertilized eggs for several weeks before laying 
eggs (David et al., 1984), and multiple males can fertilize a single 
egg mass (Medley, 2008). Egg masses are deposited through the egg 
groove in the shell over 24 to 36 hours (Randall, 1964). Queen conch 
are highly productive, with each female laying millions of eggs each 
year. When adequate food is available, female conch

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can lay an average of 13.6 egg masses, containing about 750,000 eggs 
each; resulting in about ten million eggs produced per individual per 
reproductive season (Appeldoorn, 1993). Female conch that had less food 
available produced 6.7 egg masses, containing 500,000 eggs, resulting 
in about 3.3 million eggs per individual per reproductive season 
(Appeldoorn, 1993). Egg masses have been found in water depths ranging 
from 3 to 45 m (Tewfik et al., 1998; Garc[iacute]a-Sais et al., 2012). 
Clean, low organic content, coarse sand flats are the preferred habitat 
for reproduction and egg laying (Randall, 1964; Glazer and Kidney, 
2004). Adherence of sand grains to the egg mass may provide camouflage 
and discourage predation (Randall, 1964).

Life Stages and Growth

    Female queen conch deposit eggs in strings that hatch after 3 to 5 
days as veliger larvae (Weil and Laughlin 1984). The queen conch 
veligers have wing-like lobes covered with bristly hairs, called 
cilia--which aid in locomotion and direct microscopic algae to their 
mouth (FFWCC, 2006). These veligers are planktonic for generally 14 to 
28 days, up to 60 days (D'Asaro, 1965). The larvae suffer high 
mortality rates (Ch[aacute]vez and Arregu[iacute]n-S[aacute]nchez, 
1994). These veligers are found primarily in the upper few meters of 
the water column (Posada and Appeldoorn, 1994; Stoner and Davis, 1994; 
Stoner, 2003) in densities ranging between 0-9.1/100 m\3\ in the 
Florida Keys to 2.3-32.5/100 m\3\ in the Exuma Cays, Bahamas (Stoner et 
al., 1996). Depending on local currents, the veligers can settle 
locally or drift to other locations (CFMC, 1999). Metamorphosis is 
known to be induced by a chemical cue often associated with red algae 
or a similarly polar molecule (Myanmanus, 1988; Davis, 1994). The 
preferred habitat for larval queen conch settlement is shallow back 
reefs areas and sand bars near seagrass (Stoner et al., 1994). Larval 
settlement also occurs in deeper areas (CRFM, 2004). After settling, 
the post-larvae bury themselves into the sediment for about 1 year 
(Stoner, 1989a), after which they emerge as juveniles with a shell 
length around 60 mm. It is difficult to survey conch during this 
submerged life phase and therefore juveniles are often under-sampled 
(Hesse, 1979; Appeldoorn 1987b).
    Growth of queen conch is seasonal and is positively correlated with 
water temperature and food availability. Summer growth rates are faster 
than winter growth rates (Stoner and Ray, 1993). Juvenile growth rates 
in the Bahamas were 4.4 to 16.3 mm per month in the summer and 1.8 to 3 
mm per month for the reminder of the year (Iversen et al., 1987). Shell 
length continues to increase until the onset of sexual maturation. The 
queen conch reaches sexual maturity at around 3.5 to 4 years, about the 
time when the edge of the shell lip turns outward to form the flared 
lip (Stoner et al., 2012a). Once the shell lip is formed, shell length 
does not increase (Appeldoorn, 1997; Tewfik et al., 1998). Appeldoorn 
(1988b) observed that, for thin-lipped males in Puerto Rico, true 
reproductive maturity occurred 2 months after the lip flares outward, 
at about 3.6 years of age. Based on histological examinations, 
Appeldoorn (1993) found that 100 percent of conch are not fully mature 
until over a year after complete lip formation. Shell thickness of at 
least 15 mm seems to be a better indicator of sexual maturity than the 
presence of the flared lip (Stoner et al., 2012b; Appeldoorn, 1994; 
Clerveaux et al., 2005; Stoner et al., 2009; Stoner et al., 2012b).
    With the onset of sexual maturity, growth of somatic tissue within 
the shell will begin to decrease with increasing gonadal weight. 
Eventually, the volume inside the shell can no longer accommodate 
somatic tissue growth and the tissue weight will start to decrease 
(CFMC, 1999). Stoner et al. (2012b) found that both soft tissue weight 
and gonad weight started to decrease when shell lip thickness reaches 
22 to 25 mm. Growth rate and shell morphology of queen conch can vary 
depending on sex, depth, latitude, food availability food, age class, 
and habitat. On average, female queen conch grow more quickly than 
males (Alcolado, 1976), and to a bigger size (Randall, 1964). The life 
span of queen conch is about 30 years (McCarthy, 2007).

Larval Dispersal and Population Connectivity

    Queen conch veligers remain in the water column for up to 60 days. 
They are photopositive so they remain in surface waters and will be 
primarily distributed by surface currents (Barile et al., 1994). 
Dispersal of the planktonic veligers via the currents is the primary 
mechanism for maintaining genetic connectivity of queen conch 
throughout the Caribbean Sea (Appeldoorn et al., 2011). The regional 
hydrodynamics and circulation patterns in the Caribbean are complex, 
with numerous gyres and fine-scale features. Surface currents in the 
Caribbean Sea generally flow from east to west through the Yucatan 
Strait into the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits, turning north 
and moving up the east coast of Florida. In addition, some current flow 
occurs from east to west along the Greater Antilles and northwest 
through the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas' (Stoner and Banks 
unpublished, 2013). These current patterns are believed to link queen 
conch populations in the Caribbean into one large mixed population with 
little or no population structure or mating restrictions in the 
population with some local anomalies (Morales, 2004).
    Nonetheless, there are restrictions governing larvae transport and 
recruitment. Geographic areas near strong currents are dependent on 
queen conch recruits that are susceptible to changes in currents. The 
circulations patterns in the Caribbean Sea are complex with numerous 
gyres and fine-scale features that can restrict larvae dispersal, 
retaining larvae within close proximity to the parental stocks, which 
can create patterns of localized self-recruitment marine species (Cowen 
et al., 2006; Kool et al., 2010). The available information on the gene 
flow of queen conch is limited, but some studies have shown that queen 
conch populations may be more distinct and ecologically separated from 
one another than initially believed. Perez-Enriquez et al. (2011) 
analyzed mitochondrial DNA markers among queen conch populations in 
Mexico. This study indicated that queen conch at the Alacranes Reef 
were genetically distinct from conch populations at Cozumel and Banco 
Chinchorro in Mexico that were separated by 450 to 643 km, 
respectively. Similarly, in the Bahamas, preliminary data detected 
genetic separation in queen conch populations that were located 
approximately 500 km from one another (Banks et al., 2014). In 
addition, two nearby populations of queen conch in St. Lucia were found 
to be genetically different from each other, most likely a result of 
the east and west currents that prohibit the exchange of larvae between 
the two locations (Mitton et al., 1989).
    Numerous patterns of queen conch larval dispersal have been 
described. Queen conch larvae can either be transported long distances 
via currents (Posada et al., 1997) or can supply local recruitment via 
retention in gyres and eddies (Appeldoorn, 1997). Areas that supply 
large numbers of larvae are known as sources; areas where large numbers 
of larvae settle are known as sinks. Drift vials have been used to 
explore patterns of larval dispersal via currents. Delgado et al. 
(2008) released vials along the Yucatan coast and suggests that most 
queen conch larvae remained local or were transported north. Transport 
of queen conch veligers

[[Page 65632]]

from Yucatan to West Palm Beach, Florida, could occur based on recovery 
of one drift vial (Delgado et al., 2008). Some locations, such as Banco 
Chinchorro, an atoll reef off the southeast coast of Quintana Roo, 
Mexico, are known to supply, receive, and retain planktonic larvae 
within close proximity to the parental stocks (Cowen et al., 2006; Kool 
et al., 2010). Specifically, Banco Chinchorro receives queen conch 
veligers via westerly currents from locations to the east such as 
Jamaica and supplies larvae westward to Quintana Roo, Mexico, with a 
small percentage moving to Florida, Texas, Cuba, and the Bahamas (de 
Jes[uacute]s-Navarrete and Aldana Aranda, 2000; Delgado et al., 2008; 
Paris et al., 2008).
    The Windward Islands, Belize, and Pedro Bank, Jamaica, have both 
been hypothesized to be sources of queen conch larvae (Posada et al., 
1997; Stoner, 2006). A large-scale gyre in the Belize-Honduras bight is 
thought to transport larvae from the deep fore-reef and connect queen 
conch populations throughout Belize (CRFM, 2004). Annual variations in 
queen conch larval recruitment in Roselind Bank, Colombia are 
influenced by its proximity to the Caribbean Current (Regalado, 2012). 
In Colombia, the recovery of queen conch on Serrano Bank after a 5-year 
closure is thought to be the result of immigration of larvae from 
Roncador Bank (Prada et al., 2008). In the Exuma Cays, Bahamas, queen 
conch larvae appear to be local and transported from the southeast to 
the northwest, moving through the island passes and settling on the 
west side of the island chain (Stoner, 2003). Larval density data from 
the Bahamas support this distribution pattern with high densities of 
early stage larvae in the north near Waderick Wells and lower densities 
in the south near Cat Island (Stoner et al., 1998), as well as high 
densities at both the northern Exuma Cays and south coast of Eleuthera 
(Posada et al., 1997).
    In the eastern Caribbean, a survey by Posada and Appeldoorn (1994) 
found no queen conch larval movement between the islands of Martinique 
and St. Lucia or between St. Lucia and St. Vincent. High concentrations 
of larvae are found in the vicinity of the Grenadines which indicates 
larvae are being retained there. Nevis has been identified as a 
regional queen conch larvae settlement sink (CFMC, 1999). Elsewhere in 
the eastern Caribbean, local influxes of queen conch larvae must occur, 
given there are no possible upstream currents for larvae immigration 
(Stoner, 2006).
    Bermuda, Florida, and Barbados represent the range limits of queen 
conch distribution, and they may also be areas isolated from external 
sources of larvae. Bermuda, a volcanic sea mount, is at the northern 
extent of the range. Most queen conch breeding aggregations in Bermuda 
have been located on the edge of the reef platform, adjacent to high 
current that would potentially carry the larvae away (Berg et al., 
1992a). These two factors, geographic isolation and limited larval 
recruitment, are thought to have limited the recovery of queen conch in 
Bermuda. In Florida, the Gulf Stream prevents larval inputs from the 
Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, so there are few larval inputs 
(Posada and Appeldoorn, 1994; Delgado et al., 2008), except for an 
occasional eddy of the Florida Current that brings in queen conch 
larvae from Belize, Mexico, and Honduras (Stoner et al., 1997). Because 
recent data suggest the population in Florida is increasing, local 
recruitment may be significant (Delgado et al., 2008; Glazer and 
Delgado, 2012). Barbados, at the eastern edge of the range, is thought 
to have a self-sustaining population, given its isolation from other 
breeding populations. Queen conch larvae may be retained near Barbados, 
similar to damselfish (Cowen and Castro, 1994), by local circulation 
patterns that keep marine larvae close to the point of origin (Mitton 
et al., 1989).

Density and Abundance

    Density is likely the single most important criterion affecting 
conch productivity throughout its life-history, as it affects growth, 
successful reproduction, and fecundity. Density is one of the most 
easily measured and monitored attributes for assessing the status of 
queen conch populations (Appeldoorn et al., 2011). Research has shown 
that there is a density-dependent effect on reproduction, with low 
densities inhibiting reproduction, and potentially causing a decline in 
recruitment. At density levels less than the critical threshold 
discussed below, conch mating will not occur at the frequency needed to 
sustain the population, which can lead to recruitment failure and 
population collapse (Stoner and Ray-Culp, 2000); this is known as an 
Allee effect.
    It is well documented that the density of adult queen conch 
directly impacts reproductive success (Appeldoorn, 1988; Stoner and 
Ray-Culp, 2000; Gascoigne and Lipcius, 2004; Stoner et al., 2011; 
QCEWR, 2012). Stoner and Ray-Culp (2000) documented a complete absence 
of mating and spawning behavior at densities less than 56 and 48 adult 
conch/ha, respectively. Recent research suggests that a mean density of 
56 adult conch/ha is too low since mating activity ceased at that 
level, putting recruitment at risk (QCEWR, 2012). In 2012, the Queen 
Conch Expert Workshop recommended a mean density of 100 adult conch/ha 
be used as a reference point for queen conch surveys to ensure that 
populations are not at risk. The expert workshop conclusions indicated 
that conch fisheries should manage stocks at the higher density of 100 
adult conch/ha, finding that there was a significant risk to 
recruitment when densities fell below this level (QCEWR, 2012). We 
believe that the best available science shows that there is a 
significant risk to recruitment and consequently population 
sustainability when queen conch densities fall below the 100 adult 
conch/ha threshold.
    In an effort to assess the species' status throughout its range we 
compared two data sets: (1) Queen conch density information; and (2) 
habitat information that was developed using bathometry/depth contour 
data. These data were available for 40 range States throughout the 
greater Caribbean. In the assessment below, the total area of 0 to 30 m 
depth habitat was measured for each range State. The assessment assumes 
that the species is evenly distributed between 0 to 30 m in depth. We 
realize that the species is not spread uniformly in the 0 to 30 depth 
range, and is unlikely to have ever been. Queen conch naturally exist 
in patches where they are found in much greater density than they are 
in other areas, or across the entire range of potentially suitable 
habitat. They prefer sandy substrate, algal flats, and seagrass. As 
such, the densities in the surveys used in this analysis may not be an 
accurate reflection of the status of the species relative to requisite 
densities. Absent additional information on the methodologies used in 
each of the individual surveys, there is no way to know how 
representative the densities are of actual conch populations. 
Therefore, while the assessment may be a useful analytical tool 
generally, it should not be interpreted as a reliable indicator of the 
population status of the species in those specific range States.
    Next, the appropriate conch density was then assigned to each range 
state. The most recent density information for each range State was 
used. Using each range state's habitat area and each range state's 
conch density; we were able to evaluate the percentage of the species' 
entire range which falls below or above the critical threshold (i.e., 
100 adult conch/ha) required for successful mating, recruitment, and 
sustainable conch populations.

[[Page 65633]]

    The best available information showed that 60.81 percent of the 0 
to 30 m habitat is below the critical threshold, but as discussed 
previously, the accuracy of the density estimates, from which this 
percentage is derived, is highly uncertain. The range states whose 
conch densities are below 100 adult conch/ha include: Aruba, Antigua 
and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, 
Bonaire, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cura[ccedil]ao, Dominican Republic, 
Guadeloupe, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Martinique, Panama, Saba, Turks 
and Caicos, United States (Florida), and Venezuela.
    There are three range states (i.e., Jamaica, Nicaragua, and the 
U.S. Virgin Islands) that have conch densities above 100 adult conch/
ha. Together they comprise 14.08 percent of the 0 to 30 m habitat 
available to the species.
    There are two range states (i.e., Cuba and Honduras) that recorded 
conch densities above the 100 conch/ha and they comprise 22.55 percent 
of the 0 to 30 m habitat. The available information did not indicate 
whether the conch recorded during the surveys are adult, juvenile, or 
both. Juvenile conch can form dense aggregations that can number in the 
thousands and their inclusion (combining adult and juvenile) can bias 
densities by increasing the numbers of individuals included within the 
survey (A. Stoner, Community Conch, pers. comm. to C. Horn, NMFS, March 
24, 2014). As a result, we are unable to determine whether these 
populations are above or below the critical threshold of 100 adult 
conch/ha.
    We were unable to find queen conch population density information 
for the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent 
and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, but all these locations 
have reported population declines. However, we are unable to determine 
whether the referenced declines have decreased those populations below 
the critical threshold for these locations. These range states 
represent 1.89 percent of the 0 to 30 m habitat available to the 
species.
    Lastly, we were not able to find any information on the status of 
queen conch populations in Anguilla, Dominica, Guatemala, Saint Kitts 
and Nevis, Saint-Maarten, and Saint Eustatius. These range states 
encompass 0.67 percent of the 0 to 30 m habitat available to queen 
conch.
    The best available conch density data indicate that the majority of 
queen conch populations in the greater Caribbean region are well below 
or now within the range where negative population growth or recruitment 
failure is a significant risk. The sample area for conch surveys is 
restricted by the depth limit for SCUBA diving safety (less than 30 m), 
they are generally limited to areas which are actively fished, and in 
most cases interviews with fishers have been used to define the area 
over which the survey will take place (QCEWR, 2012). Consequently 
density can be biased, since unexploited parts of a population at 
depths below typical human SCUBA diving limits (eggs masses have been 
found at 45m) or unknown to fishers are not counted (QCEWR, 2012). 
However, adult conch primarily aggregate to mate and lay eggs in waters 
from 0-30m, and they are also depth restricted because their food 
sources are photosynthetic, requiring light attenuation (Randall, 
1964). Therefore, densities at greater depth are likely lower.
    An additional source of uncertainty is that the density estimates 
from smaller spatial surveys may not be fully representative of a range 
state's conch population, especially if surveys are conducted in areas 
of lesser or greater fishing pressure and unexploited parts of the 
population are not counted. In comparison, surveys that are repeated 
every few years and are conducted over wide-geographic areas are likely 
to provide a more representative density of the overall conch 
population. Nevertheless, the information presented above is the best 
available scientific information we have on the current density of 
conch throughout its range and despite questions raised relative to the 
accuracy of the densities we must consider this information in 
assessing the species' status.
    Now, we will use the information generated by the status report, 
the ERA group's threats assessment, and the information provided by the 
Southeast Region's SDF to evaluate and summarize the species' threats, 
by the five ESA factors listed in section 4(a)(1), to determine the 
severity, scope, and certainty of the extinction risk of those threats 
across the species' range, now and over the foreseeable future.

Threats Evaluation

    As previously explained, the ERA group members conducted their 
individual threats assessment. This section discusses the methods used 
to evaluate each threat and its effect on the species' extinction risk. 
As explained below, the ERA group did not take into account the 
information provided by the Southeast Region's Sustainable Fisheries 
Division (SFD) because it occurred after the threats assessment was 
conducted. We have separately taken into account the ERA group's threat 
assessment and the information provided by SFD in evaluating the 
overall extinction risk to the species under the five ESA Section 
4(a)(1) factors.
    For the purpose of the extinction risk assessment, the term 
``foreseeable future'' was based on 3 queen conch generations, or 15 
years (a generation time is defined as the time it takes, on average, 
for a sexually mature female queen conch to be replaced by offspring 
with the same spawning capacity) and our ability to reliably predict 
threats that impact the species' status. After considering the life 
history of the queen conch, availability of data, and types of threats, 
we determined that the foreseeable future should be defined as 
approximately 15 years. This timeframe (3 generation times) takes into 
account aspects of the species' life history and also allows the time 
necessary to provide for the recovery of overexploited populations.
    The queen conch is an early-maturing species, with a high fecundity 
and population growth rate, and larval dispersal over large spatial 
scales. As such it is likely that the results of recommended management 
actions being considered by fishery managers, developed by several 
working groups and international conferences (discussed below), would 
also be realized, and reflected in population within a 15-year time 
period. The foreseeable future timeframe is also a function of the 
reliability of available data regarding the identified threats and 
extends only as far as the data allow for making reasonable predictions 
about the species' response to those threats. We believe that the 
impacts from the threats on the biological status of the species can be 
confidently predicted within this timeframe.
    Often the ability to measure or document risk factors is limited, 
and information is not quantitative or very often lacking altogether. 
Therefore, in assessing extinction risk, it is important to include 
both qualitative and quantitative information. In previous NMFS status 
reviews, Biological Review Teams and ERA teams have used a risk matrix 
method to organize and summarize the professional judgment of a panel 
of knowledgeable scientists. This approach is described in detail by 
Wainright and Kope (1999) and has been used in Pacific salmonid status 
reviews as well as in the status reviews of many other species (sees 
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/ for links to these reviews).
    The members of the ERA group were asked to provide qualitative 
scores

[[Page 65634]]

based on their perceived severity of each threat. The members were 
asked to independently evaluate the severity, scope, and certainty for 
these threats currently and in the foreseeable future (15 years from 
now). The scoring for each threat corresponds to the following five 
levels of extinction risk: (1) no or very low risk--unlikely that this 
threat affects species' overall status; (2) low risk--this threat may 
affect species' status, but only to a degree that it is unlikely that 
this threat significantly elevates risk of extinction; (3) moderate 
risk--this threat contributes significantly to long-term risk of 
extinction, but does not constitute a danger of extinction in the near 
future; (4) increasing risk--present risk is low or moderate, but is 
likely to increase to high risk in the foreseeable future if present 
conditions continue; and (5) very high risk--this threat indicates 
danger of extinction in the near future.
    The ERA group used the ``likelihood point'' method for ranking the 
threat effect levels to allow individuals to express uncertainty. For 
this approach, each member distributed 5 `likelihood points' among the 
five levels of extinction risk. If a threat was categorized as unknown, 
all 5 points were required to be assigned to that category alone. This 
approach has been used in previous NMFS status reviews (e.g., Pacific 
salmon, Southern Resident killer whale, Puget Sound rockfish, Pacific 
herring, and black abalone) to structure the team's thinking and 
express levels of uncertainty when assigning risk categories. The ERA 
group did not make recommendations as to whether the species should be 
listed as threatened or endangered. Rather, each member of the ERA 
group drew his or her own scientific conclusions, based on the 
information in the status report, about the risk of extinction faced by 
the queen conch under present conditions and in the foreseeable future 
based on an evaluation and assessment of threats.

Summary of Factors Affecting the Queen Conch

    As described above, section 4(a)(1) of the ESA and NMFS 
implementing regulations (50 CFR part 424) state that we must determine 
whether a species is endangered or threatened because of any one or a 
combination of the following factors: the present or threatened 
destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; 
overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes; disease or predation; inadequacy of existing 
regulatory mechanisms; or other natural or man-made factors affecting 
its continued existence. This section briefly summarizes the ERA 
group's findings, the SFD assessment, and our conclusions regarding 
threats to the queen conch.

The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of 
Its Habitat or Range

    Habitat alteration and water pollution were considered as threats 
under this factor; this included habitat loss or degradation from 
anthropogenic or natural causes (e.g., hurricanes) and the threat of 
water pollution which is caused by the introduction of toxic chemicals 
and pollutants into the species habitat. The ERA group ranked the 
threat of habitat alteration an ``increasing risk'' and the threat of 
water pollution a ``low risk.''
    The queen conch's habitat can be negatively affected by destruction 
of near-shore aggregation and juvenile nursery areas, as well as 
degraded water quality. Localized nutrient enrichment can affect the 
coastal habitats where juvenile conch live. Nutrient loading from 
coastal development, marinas and recreational boating, sewage treatment 
and disposal, industrial wastewater and solid waste disposal, ocean 
disposal, agriculture, and aquaculture can accumulate in the soil and 
then run off into streams and coastal waters. Nutrient enrichment is 
known to stimulate overly-rapid growth of phytoplankton that 
subsequently consume oxygen as they decay, which leads to low dissolved 
oxygen (i.e., eutrophication) that can cause fish kills (Correll, 1987; 
Tuttle et al., 1987; Klauda et al., 1991b). Nutrient enrichment can 
also trigger algal blooms which can block sunlight from reaching 
submerged aquatic vegetation, including seagrass. Seagrass, an 
important component of juvenile conch habitat, requires sunlight for 
photosynthesis. Seagrasses die with inadequate sunlight. The loss of 
seagrass would increase the vulnerability of juvenile queen conch as 
they rely on seagrass habitat for protection from predators.
    The destruction of coastal seagrasses can also negatively affect 
queen conch recruitment. Juvenile conch nursery areas, which are 
comprised mainly of seagrass habitats, can be destroyed by coastal 
development, prop scarring from recreational or commercial boat 
traffic, and boat groundings. Habitat destruction was considered a 
cause for the initial decline in conch populations in Montserrat 
(Posada et al., 1997). There has been a significant amount of seagrass 
loss on the west and south coast of Barbados. This loss likely 
contributed to low conch densities (Stoner, 2003; Valles and Oxenford, 
2012). The declines in the queen conch populations reported in Saint 
Kitts and Nevis in 2002 have been linked to habitat degradation, 
dredging, and hurricane impacts on habitat (CITES, 2012). Similarly, 
the declines in queen conch populations in the Turks and Caicos have 
been related to habitat degradation and two hurricanes that impacted 
the area in 2008 (DEMA, 2012).
    Seagrass is important to the ecosystem because it improves water 
quality (Carter et al., 1991). In addition to providing cover and prey 
for juvenile conch, seagrasses transport nutrients into the water 
column and through primary production and respiration improve dissolved 
oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, alkalinity, and pH. Seagrass 
can also improve water clarity by binding sediments to the benthos.
    Increased sedimentation as a result of coastal influxes can impact 
conch habitat. Adult conch aggregation habitats are characterized by 
coarse, low organic content sand, and if these shallow, coastal areas 
are subject to deposition of fine sediment or sediment with high 
organic content, these habitats could become unsuitable (Appeldoorn and 
Baker, 2013). For example, the main island of Trinidad does not have a 
significant queen conch population, in part because the habitat is 
unsuitable due to the low salinities and high turbidity associated with 
continental rivers and streams (CITES 2012). In addition, habitat loss 
was identified by Gore and Llewellyn (2005) as a possible factor that 
contributed to the decline of queen conch in the British Virgin 
Islands.
    The run off of toxins and chemicals from upland areas into coastal 
waters may have negative effects on the development of the queen 
conch's reproductive system. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation 
Commission (FFWCC) and other researchers have documented a population 
of non-reproducing queen conch in the Florida Keys (Glazer and 
Quinterro, 1998; Delgado et al., 2004). Several studies have 
demonstrated that the conch found in nearshore locations of the Florida 
Keys do not have normal gonadal development (FFWCC, 2012). This 
reproductive impairment is limited to queen conch in the nearshore 
waters and is theorized to be related to exposure to toxins and 
chemical pollutants in their habitat. Specifically, Spade et al. (2010) 
suggested that the halt in reproductive maturation of queen conch in 
nearshore areas in the

[[Page 65635]]

Florida Keys was possibly a result of exposure to high levels of zinc 
and copper. Other gastropod studies have related heavy metal exposure, 
particularly copper and zinc, to reduced fecundity (Laskowski and 
Hopkin, 1996; Snyman et al., 2004; Ducrot et al., 2007; Coeurdassier et 
al., 2005). The concentration of copper and zinc in the Florida Keys 
nearshore conch population's tissues was found to be similar to those 
found in other gastropods studies in other locations where fecundity 
was reduced (Spade et al., 2010). In the Florida Keys, queen conch with 
gonad deficiencies were experimentally transferred from nearshore areas 
to deeper offshore areas where they developed functional gonads. 
Likewise, viable queen conch from the deeper offshore areas became 
reproductively incompetent when moved inshore, showing that exposure to 
an environmental factor in the nearshore environment is causing the 
reproductive damage, and that it is reversible (McCarthy et al., 2002; 
Glazer et al., 2008; Spade et al., 2010). Impaired reproduction from 
water pollution is a potentially serious threat, increasing extinction 
risk, but the best available information indicates that these negative 
effects are only occurring in the nearshore waters of the Florida Keys, 
a relatively small proportion of the species' range. We could not find 
any information regarding elevated concentrations of zinc or copper 
anywhere else in the Caribbean Sea, so we cannot generalize this threat 
beyond a small part of the species' range.
    Two chemicals associated with mosquito control, naled and 
permethrin, were tested in the laboratory on early life stages of 
conch, and both embryos and larvae experienced chronic, sublethal 
effects. Larvae exposed to these pesticides were slow-growing, which in 
the wild would result in an extended pelagic stage with higher total 
mortality before they reached recruitment size (Delgado et al., 2007). 
When queen conch embryos and competent larvae (i.e., capable of 
undergoing metamorphosis) were exposed to concentrations of naled and 
permethrin, development slowed and irregularities occurred during 
embryogenesis (McIntyre et al., 2006). Defects were positively 
correlated with concentration and resulted in deformed embryos that 
would not be viable (FFWCC, 2012). The pesticides may also sensitize 
queen conch larvae to metamorphosis-inducing cues, which could result 
in early metamorphosis, premature settlement on suboptimal habitat, and 
decreased survival (FFWCC, 2012). These lab results demonstrate only 
potential habitat-related impacts of pesticides on early life stages of 
queen conch; however, absent actual exposure information we cannot 
gauge the severity or certainty of impacts on wild populations and 
cannot project them to assess population risk. The concentrations of 
naled and permethin used in the lab experiments were at concentrations 
used for terrestrial mosquito control and did not take into 
consideration the dilution effects that would occur with runoff and 
mixing with seawater. Because effects were limited to larval 
development, and given the infrequent and limited larval recruitment 
into Florida, potential effects of the chemical as an extinction risk 
to the continued existence of the species are difficult to realize.
    In summary, the members of the ERA group ranked the threat of 
habitat alteration as an ``increasing risk'' which indicates that the 
members thought that the present risk of extinction to queen conch 
resulting from habitat alteration is low or moderate, but is likely to 
increase to high risk in the foreseeable future if present conditions 
continue. The members of the ERA group ranked the threat of water 
pollution a ``low risk.'' This ranking indicates that the group members 
thought that water pollution may affect the queen conch's status, but 
only to a degree that is unlikely to significantly elevate extinction 
risk. Currently, there are numerous potential threats to coastal 
habitat as identified above; however, we believe that the one most 
significant threat is habitat loss.

Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    The threats of commercial harvest and historical harvest include 
the removal of individual conch under the current regulatory mechanisms 
and the effects of prior harvest on the current species' status. The 
ERA group ranked overutilization for commercial purposes as an 
``increasing risk'' threat, which indicates that the members thought 
that the present extinction risk is low or moderate, but is likely to 
increase to a high extinction risk in the foreseeable future if present 
conditions continue. The threat of historical harvest was ranked as a 
``moderate risk'' threat to the species, indicating that the members 
thought the threat of historical overharvest contributed significantly 
to long-term risk of extinction, but does not constitute a danger of 
extinction in the near future.
    The members of the ERA group ranked Allee effects and artificial 
selection as ``increasing risk'' threats, which indicates that the 
members of the group thought that the present risk is low or moderate, 
but is likely to increase to high risk in the foreseeable future (15 
years) if present conditions continue. These threats are considered 
under Factor B, because they are caused by the overexploitation of 
reproductive adult conch and the targeted removal of large conch from 
within a population. Subsequently, these two threats are related to the 
principle threats of commercial harvest and the inadequacy of 
regulatory mechanism designed to control that harvest. As previously 
mentioned, the Allee effect refers to biological processes in which the 
viability of a population is reduced as population density decreases 
(e.g., through reduced mate finding or increased predator 
vulnerability) and, in particular to queen conch, the major concern is 
with the minimum density of about 100 adult conch/ha; mate finding and 
recruitment is at risk when conch populations decline below this 
threshold. In addition, the artificial selection or the targeted 
removal of large conch can change the morphology of individuals in a 
population and is related to the primary threats of overharvest, as 
well as the level of protection from fishing mortality (regulatory 
measures and law enforcement).
    In the Caribbean region, the queen conch is one of the most 
important fishery resources, both economically and culturally (Brownell 
and Steven, 1981; Appeldoorn, 1994; Asprea et al., 2009). The queen 
conch fishery encompasses the entire Caribbean region and consists of 
both industrial and artisanal fleets (Appeldoorn et al., 2011). The 
species is primarily harvested by free-diving, SCUBA diving, or the use 
of hookah, except in those range states where underwater breathing 
apparatus is prohibited.
    The fishery has a long tradition in the region and the species has 
been valued, especially for its meat, for several centuries dating back 
to pre-Columbian times (Brownell and Stevely, 1981). The shells are 
also used for jewelry and as curios, but these uses are of secondary 
economic importance (Mulliken, 1996; Chakalall and Cochrane, 1996). 
Commercial harvest records and inter-island trade were known from the 
mid-18th century, when dried conch meat was shipped from the Turks and 
Caicos Islands to the neighboring island of Hispaniola (Theile, 2001). 
The fishery expanded in the early 20th-century with advances in freezer 
technology, causing the shift to trade in frozen meat, but conch meat 
continued to be of

[[Page 65636]]

significant local importance until the mid-20th century. Since the 
1970s the commercial harvest has seen a drastic increase, largely 
driven by the increased demand overseas, as well as by the growing 
resident population and the fast developing tourism industry (Theile, 
2001). Today the majority of queen conch meat harvested in the 
Caribbean is supplied to markets in the United States and Europe, but 
it is also imported by many Caribbean range states where their queen 
conch populations are no longer able to support their domestic 
consumption (Theile, 2001; NMFS, 2014a). Overharvest to meet current 
demand is considered the primary cause of declines that are reported in 
numerous range states throughout the Caribbean region. The population 
decline has largely been attributed to overfishing, a lack of adequate 
enforcement, and poaching according to a review by the seventeenth 
meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species 
(CITES) Animals Committee (2001).
    As discussed above in the Density and Abundance section, many range 
states throughout the greater Caribbean have experienced population 
declines or have reported low conch densities over the years. These 
declines are primarily due to intensive harvest by commercial 
fisheries. The primary threat to queen conch is commercial harvest and 
the related regulatory measures designed to control commercial harvest. 
Other threats, such as Allee effects and artificial selection are a 
direct consequence of overexploitation by fisheries. NMFS considers the 
queen conch fishery to be overfished throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands 
and Puerto Rico, and the best available information indicates that the 
queen conch is being overfished throughout the Caribbean (NMFS, 2014b).
    We evaluated trends in landings, minimum population densities, and 
conch habitat (0 to 30 m), either on a Caribbean-wide basis or on a 
country basis, when that information was available. Literature was 
searched to determine the composition of juveniles versus adults in 
queen conch catches. Regulations and regulatory compliance were also 
evaluated to determine their adequacy with regard to their ability to 
prevent overharvest and harvest of juveniles, and included an 
evaluation of the amount of poaching and illegal harvest that may be 
occurring. These data were then used by the SFD to create a 
sustainability index which examined queen conch sustainability on a 
country by country basis, as well as Caribbean-wide (NMFS, 2014b).
    The index was developed to assess the overall `sustainability' of 
queen conch by the top producing Caribbean countries. Eleven countries 
were included in this analysis (e.g., Belize, the Bahamas, Colombia, 
Cuba, Honduras, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos Island, Mexico, Dominican 
Republic, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua). These countries were selected 
because they represented 92.4 percent of the queen conch landings 
between 1980 and 2011, and 91.6 percent of the landings from 2000 to 
2011. The sustainability index results were weighted by the landings 
data for the period between 2000 and 2011. The conch density element 
received 50 percent of the total score, given the limitations on 
reproduction at low densities (Stoner et al., 2012) that could have 
negative effects on stock sustainability unless that stock is receiving 
larvae recruitments from other countries or unidentified reproductive 
deep water populations. The remaining 50 percent of the score was 
assigned to the management and regulations components (e.g., minimum 
size restrictions, annual catch limits or quotas, seasonal closures or 
marine protected areas (MPAs), prohibitions on SCUBA or hookah) and 
regulatory compliance (e.g., illegal harvest and poaching). The maximum 
score for the sustainability index was set at 20. Scores closer to the 
maximum 20 score indicate greater Caribbean-wide sustainability of 
queen conch and scores closer to zero indicate unsustainable harvest 
practices. A score closer to 10 would indicate that some harvest 
practices may be sustainable for some countries and unsustainable for 
other countries.
    The sustainability index found that overall across the 11 countries 
reviewed in this assessment (e.g., Belize, the Bahamas, Colombia, Cuba, 
Honduras, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos Island, Mexico, Dominican Republic, 
Puerto Rico, Nicaragua) the index score was 8.55 of 20 when weighted by 
landings, and 8.90 out of 20 when weighted by amount of available 
habitat from 0 to 30 m deep.
    The SFD also reviewed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) queen 
conch landings trends by country from 1950 through 2011 for the 
Caribbean (NMFS, 2014b). A total of 30 countries had reported and/or 
estimated queen conch landings during this time. Only two countries had 
landings for all 62 years in the time series. In many instances, 
landings were estimated by the FAO when a country did not report 
landings, and, for some countries, landings were not reported or 
estimated. The estimated landings typically represented a small portion 
of the total annual landings (less than 5 percent), so this likely does 
not bias the data or add significant variability. There was a rapid 
increase in landings from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, after 
which landings declined by 47 percent from the mid-1990s through 2011 
(Garibaldi, 2012). However, this decline, as well as the increase in 
landings leading up to the peak, is confounded by several factors. 
First and foremost, improvements in data reporting have occurred over 
time. For example, from 1980 to 1990 the number of countries reporting 
landings increased from 8 to 15, including several states and 
territories with significant amounts of landings such as Jamaica, 
Colombia, and Puerto Rico. By the early 2000s, 19 countries were 
reporting landings. In addition, landings for 6 to 7 other countries 
were being estimated by the FAO (NMFS, 2014b). Although an increase in 
landings is apparent, this increase may not have been as substantial if 
landings were being reported by more countries leading up to the peak 
in landings.
    The number of countries with reported or estimated landings reached 
a maximum of 24 in 1996 and has remained fairly constant since. Based 
solely on available landings, there was a 47 percent decline in 
landings from the peak observed in 1995 (40,835 tons) through 2011 
(21,448 tons). However, this decline is confounded by several 
regulatory measures, as well as non-reporting. For instance, there are 
no reported or estimated landings for Mexico during 2006 to 2011, yet 
prior to that time Mexico was averaging over 6,000 tons of annual 
landings. The reason for Mexico not reporting landings has yet to be 
determined, but it is not due to a full moratorium on harvest as Mexico 
did not close Chinchirro Bank until 2012 (Aldana Aranda GCFInet 
communication). Closures off the Yucutan and Quintana Roo, Mexico were 
implemented in the late-1980s and early 1990s (CITES, 2012). Jamaica 
accounted for the largest amount of landings of any country from 1980 
to 2011 (22 percent), but overharvest led to more restrictive 
management and implementation of harvest quotas or annual catch limits. 
Harvest off Jamaica was unregulated until 1994 (Murray et al., 2012). 
In 1994, the first harvest quotas were implemented. Jamaica began 
conducting scientific surveys and setting total allowable catches based 
on conch abundance that establish a required conch density at 70 conch/
ha for the fishery (Murray et al., 2012). This led to

[[Page 65637]]

considerably lower landings and fishing effort after the mid-1990s in 
response to more sustainable and scientifically based harvest 
practices. Similarly, following the Caribbean-wide peak in landings in 
the mid-1990s, two other countries saw major declines in landings. 
Landings from Honduras decreased in 2003 due to a moratorium on harvest 
imposed by the government in response to CITES concerns regarding the 
lack of information, high amount of exports, lack of landings records, 
illegal activity, and low population densities. Harvest and trade 
resumed in 2006, but only for conch collected through scientific 
surveys. The total allowable catch levels are considerably lower now 
than peak Honduran landings.
    CITES also suspended exports from the Dominican Republic in 2003 
due to high landings and a lack of current stock information (CITES, 
2006). Exports were suspended from 2003 through 2012, during which time 
the fishery existed mostly for tourism and domestic consumption (Torres 
and Sullivan Sealy, 2002b; FAO report, 2012). If the landings from 
Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras are excluded due 
to confounding regulatory changes and missing landings, then the 
cumulative trend in landings appear to be stable (NMFS, 2014b). In 
fact, there is a stable trend in landings from 1993 forward, which also 
corresponds well with improvements in data reporting (NMFS, 2014b).
    There were other regulatory changes that likely affected trends in 
landings from other countries, but none as significant as those 
observed for Jamaica, Honduras, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. The 
above is not intended to assess the sustainability of queen conch, but 
merely point out that landings should be interpreted with caution and 
should be used with other sources of data to assess trends in 
population abundance, as reporting levels and regulations confound 
overall trends in landings. Regardless of improvements in reporting and 
regulations, landings alone may not be a useful indicator of stock 
health. Landings can increase, decrease, or remain stable for numerous 
reasons that do not necessarily reflect stock abundance or 
`sustainability.' For instance, landings may be increasing because of 
increasing effort, but such harvest rates may not be sustainable. 
Similarly, hyper-stability may occur in which fishermen over time 
expend more effort to catch the same amount of conch. If this occurs, 
then catch per unit effort may decline while landings remain stable, 
leading to reduced population abundance. Landings may decline due to 
more sustainable harvesting practices, economic factors, or reduced 
stock abundance, so any declines should be carefully evaluated against 
fishery survey data and fishery-dependent data to determine the root 
cause of the decline.
    Despite the concerns noted relative to relying on landings data, 
the observed high levels of relatively stable landings over the past 
two decades are inconsistent with the estimates of widespread low 
densities discussed previously. If the actual densities in the majority 
of the suitable habitat areas were actually below the density threshold 
necessary to support successful mating and reproduction, the species 
would be unable to support such high landings. Also, with conch being 
very fecund, stability of harvest over a long period of time may 
indicate recruitment from areas not fished, such as deep water stocks, 
or from areas with conch densities greater than 100 adult conch/ha, as 
larvae can disperse over a broad geographic range and can replenish 
overexploited populations.
    In summary, we considered the ERA group rankings for those threats 
identified under Factor B. We also considered the SFD assessment, which 
reviewed the trends in landings and the sustainability of the largest 
conch fisheries (NMFS, 2014b). The sustainability index provided by SFD 
found that, overall, across the 11 major conch producing countries 
analyzed, the index score was 8.55 of 20 when weighted by landings, and 
8.90 out of 20 when weighted by amount of available habitat from 0 to 
30 m deep. Also, this analysis indicates that if the landings from 
Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras are excluded, due 
to confounding regulatory changes and missing landings (explained 
above), then the cumulative trend in landings appear to be stable 
(NMFS, 2014b). In fact, the analysis showed a stable trend in landings 
from 1993 forward, which also corresponds well with improvements in 
data reporting (NMFS, 2014b).
    Based on this information, we believe that overutilization for 
commercial purposes is a significant threat to the species. However, 
based on the assessment conducted by the SFD (NMFS, 2014b) and 
restrictions on exports (e.g., embargos) of these fisheries due to 
CITES, we have determined that the current and foreseeable future 
impacts associated with these threats are not affecting the queen conch 
to such an extent that they represent a risk to persistence of the 
species.

Disease and Predation

    Parasites and Predation were considered as threats under Factor C; 
this included the effects of parasites on various life-history stages 
and predation effects on the population and community structure. The 
ERA group ranked both parasites and predation as ``low risk'' threats. 
There is some information on the impacts of parasites and predation on 
queen conch, specifically related to the effects of a coccoidian 
parasite (apicomplexa) and the high rates of predation on the early 
life stages of queen conch.
    Several studies report the presence of the coccoidian parasite in 
queen conch. The coccoidian parasite is dispersed through the feces of 
the host and may spread through consuming benthic detritus (Duszynski 
et al., 2004). The presence of this parasite has been linked to reduced 
gametogenesis and irregularities observed in the queen conch's 
reproductive cycle (Aldana Aranda et al., 2009a). The geographic 
distribution and occurrence of the parasite was found to be 
``generalized and intense in various sites around the Caribbean'' 
(Aldana Aranda et al., 2007). The infection increased across the 
Caribbean ocean from west to east (CITES, 2012). The lowest occurrence 
for this parasite was found in the Gulf of Honduras, Mexican Caribbean 
and Campeche Bank, followed by the Colombian Archipelago, and Venezuela 
Corridor, with the highest parasitism occurring at Martinique, 
Guadeloupe, St. Barthelemy, and Puerto Rico (Aldana Aranda et al., 
2011). In Florida, the parasite was found at every location and in 
every conch sampled (Aldana Aranda et al., 2009b), but the median 
incidence of parasites per conch was observed to be similar to conch 
found in the Gulf of Honduras, Mexican Caribbean, and Campeche Bank 
(Aldana Aranda et al., 2009a). In San Andres, Colombia, and in Mexico, 
the presence of the parasite has been linked to irregularities in the 
reproductive cycle and reduced gametogenesis (Aldana Aranda et al., 
2009a), but no correlation was found between the parasite and 
reproduction irregularities in Florida's offshore queen conch 
population (Aldana Aranda et al., 2009b). These studies indicate that 
the parasite could be responsible for irregularities in the 
reproductive cycle and reduced gametogenesis in queen conch, but we 
caution that it is necessary to further investigate the relationship 
(Aldana Aranda et al., 2009a, 2009b; FAO, 2012).
    Similar to the larval stage of all marine organisms, the earlier 
life stages of queen conch are exposed to high rates

[[Page 65638]]

of predation. The predation rate on juvenile conch is estimated to be 
about 60 percent annually (Iversen et al., 1986). Predation decreases 
as the shell grows to about 3.5 inches, when it is too strong to be 
crushed by the majority of predators (Davis, 1992), and the types of 
predators decreases to include only those able to destroy a strong 
shell, such as sharks, rays, turtles, octopi, and large hermit crabs 
(Brownell and Stevely, 1981).
    In summary, the ERA group ranked the threats of parasites and 
predation a ``low risk,'' which indicates that the members thought it 
is unlikely that these threats affect the queen conch's overall status. 
We acknowledge that there are high levels of predation on the earlier 
phases of the queen conch's life-history; however, there is no evidence 
that the current level of predation is unnatural or a threat to the 
species. As discussed above, there is a widespread disease that is 
infecting queen conch. While information is limited, the best available 
information suggests that reproductive problems in some cases 
correspond with the parasite infection, but this is not the case in 
other locations (e.g., Florida). At this time, there is insufficient 
information to evaluate the effects to queen conch resulting from 
parasites to determine whether it is a threat to the species continued 
persistence.

Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms analysis included: 
international trade regulations, foreign nation regulations (i.e., 
domestic laws), law enforcement, U.S. Federal laws, and U.S. state and 
territorial laws. The ERA group ranked the existing conch fishery 
regulations employed by foreign nations to be ``high risk'' threat, 
which indicates that this threat poses a danger of extinction for queen 
conch in the near future. The ERA group rankings indicate that the law 
enforcement of the existing fisheries regulations, as well as 
international trade regulations, are ``increasing risk'' threats, 
indicating that they thought the present risk to queen conch is low or 
moderate, but is likely to increase to high risk in the foreseeable 
future if present conditions continue. Lastly the ERA group ranked the 
existing fishery regulations in the U.S. Federal and U.S. state and 
territorial regulations as a ``low risk'' threat, which indicates that 
the members thought that this threat may affect species' status, but 
only to a degree that it is unlikely that this threat significantly 
elevates risk of extinction.
    In 1990, the Parties to the Convention for the Protection and 
Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region 
included queen conch in Annex II of its Protocol Concerning Specially 
Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW Protocol) as a species that may be 
used on a rational and sustainable basis and that requires protective 
measures. In 1992, queen conch were added to Appendix II of CITES, 
which is an international agreement between governments established 
with the aim of ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild 
animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Appendix II 
includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, 
but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization 
incompatible with their survival. International trade of Appendix II 
species is permitted when export permits are granted from the country 
of origin. In order to issue an export permit, the exporting country 
must find that the animals were legally obtained and their export will 
not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild (referred 
to as a ``non-detriment finding'').
    The fishery management authorities (responsible for making non-
detriment findings) of the states of export have found it difficult to 
make the required non-detriment findings necessary for issuing export 
permits under CITES Appendix II (Ehrhardt and Valle-Esquivel, 2008). 
The regional biological status and trade status of queen conch were 
reviewed by the CITES in 1995 and 2001 under the Significant Trade 
Review process. The Significant Trade Review process is required when 
there is concern about levels of trade in an Appendix II species. These 
reviews were initiated because of the continuing growth and export of 
the conch fishery and problems with enforcement in several range 
states. The latest review (Theile, 2001) concluded that the majority of 
queen conch populations were in decline due to over-exploitation. Some 
populations were showing little signs of recovery despite fishery 
closures and some showed signs of potential recruitment failure. Only a 
few countries had conch populations that were considered stable and 
information was lacking for a number of countries. The review 
characterized the majority of queen conch populations as over-exploited 
with harvest in some areas consisting of juveniles and an increasing 
shift in fishing effort to deeper waters. As a result of these reviews, 
queen conch trade was suspended for some countries. There are several 
countries whose exports of queen conch have been periodically banned by 
CITES: Dominican Republic, Honduras, Haiti, Antigua and Barbuda, 
Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Grenada. Haiti and Grenada are the 
only two countries where suspensions remain in place (Meadows and 
Garcia-Moliner, 2012). Poaching and illegal trade in queen conch 
remains a significant problem in the wider Caribbean region (CITES, 
2003; NMFS, 2014a; NMFS, 2014b). Recently, in a separate action, the 
European Union issued a ban on imports from any fish caught on Belize 
vessels, due to the country's inability to stem illegal fishing 
(Nielsen, 2014).
    Although there have been difficulties in implementing CITES in 
relation to queen conch, CITES has proven to be a useful tool in conch 
harvest regulation. Through CITES a number of trade embargos have been 
implemented. These embargos do not stop all harvest in the affected 
countries, as there still is poaching and harvest for domestic 
consumption. However, we believe these embargos reduced the numbers of 
conch harvested due to limited markets, as the United States imports 
approximately 80 percent of the annual queen conch catch (Meadows and 
Garcia-Moliner, 2012). CITES, Article IV (related to Appendix-II 
species) states that, ``an export permit shall only be granted when . . 
. a scientific authority of the State of export has advised that such 
export will not be detrimental to the survival of that species.'' There 
are no requirements regarding how a scientific authority should 
complete a ``non-detrimental finding.'' However, in making their non-
detrimental findings, exporting countries should consider total conch 
mortality, which includes domestic and export harvest, and illegal, 
unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Therefore, it is important 
that the scientific authorities follow the guidance on making non-
detrimental findings (Rosser and Haywood, 2002), as well as documented 
methodologies, in order to facilitate the formulation of non-detriment 
findings, and to make more complete and scientifically sound the 
evaluations required to improve the implementation of the CITES. A 
number of countries and territories in the queen conch's range have 
regulatory mechanisms that are intended to manage harvest. They 
generally consist of minimum size or weight restrictions, closed 
seasons or spatial closures, harvest quotas, and gear restrictions, or 
a combination of these (Berg and Olsen, 1989; Chakalall and Cochrane, 
1997).
    The local overexploitation of queen conch stocks has resulted in 
total conch

[[Page 65639]]

fishery closures in Aruba, Bermuda, Costa Rica, Florida (U.S.), and 
Venezuela. In 2012, the Mexican Government closed the Chinchorro Banks 
to conch harvest. This closure will remain in effect until February 
2017 (Aldana Aranda GCFInet communication).
    We attempted to compile regulations specific to queen conch harvest 
for all range countries, but we were unable to find regulations 
specific to queen conch harvest for Barbados, Brazil, Montserrat, 
Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago. Several patterns emerged from the 
compilation and evaluation of existing regulatory mechanisms. First, 
regulatory mechanisms vary between countries, with most including: 
export quotas and caps on harvest, ban on SCUBA and/or hookah gear, 
minimum size, minimum weight, seasonal and spatial closures or some 
combination of those. Almost all the countries with significant conch 
fisheries (e.g., Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, the Bahamas, Dominican 
Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Mexico) and some with limited or no 
harvest (The British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Colombia, 
Cuba, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands) have seasonal closures that 
vary in duration, but generally occurr during mating months to protect 
reproductively active stocks. There are a few countries that have 
significant conch fisheries, but do not have regulations that include a 
closed season (e.g., Honduras, St. Kitts and Nevis). The closed season 
in the Turks and Caicos only prohibits queen conch exports during conch 
mating seasons, but not does not ban harvest during that time. Several 
countries with limited conch fisheries do not have closed seasons 
(e.g., the Caribbean Netherlands, Grenada, Haiti, Martinique, St Lucia, 
and St. Vincent).
    The restriction of SCUBA and hookah gear limits the depth of hand 
harvest and consequently protects queen conch that may be distributed 
in deep waters. It also limits the time a person can stay underwater to 
harvest conch, reducing catch rates. The use of SCUBA and hookah gears 
to harvest queen conch is prohibited in the Cayman Islands, Colombia, 
Cuba, and Turks and Caicos. There are no regulations that prohibit 
SCUBA or hookah to harvest queen conch in Antigua and Barbuda, 
Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Caribbean 
Netherlands (exception Saba Bank), Grenada, St. Lucia, and St Vincent 
and Grenadines. SCUBA is prohibited in Jamaica, Belize, and Martinique, 
but not hookah gear. Two countries allow the use of SCUBA or hookah, 
but only by permit: the Bahamas and St. Kitts and Nevis. Some areas 
have blanket prohibitions for the use of SCUBA or hookah in some 
locations while permitting it in others. In the U.S. Virgin Islands and 
Puerto Rico, SCUBA and hookah are allowed in territorial waters, but 
not Federal waters. The British Virgin Islands prohibits SCUBA in MPAs 
and Fishery Priority Areas. Seasonal and spatial closures and gear 
restrictions may reduce conch harvest, protect reproductively active 
stocks, and potentially conserve unexploited deep-water habitats; 
however, enforcement has been inconsistent to non-existent in many 
jurisdictions, which allows significant illegal collection and 
poaching.
    Restricting harvest to only larger queen conch conserves 
reproductive capacity by ensuring an individual can contribute to at 
least one reproductive season (Stoner et al., 2012b). Minimum size 
regulations for queen conch range from 18 to 22.9 cm in shell length 
across the Caribbean, with unprocessed meat (i.e., animal is removed 
from shell; meat is not cleaned or filleted) weight from about 225 to 
280 gr. The size of a queen conch is known to vary given the species' 
highly plastic shell morphology, with variable growth rates across the 
range (SEDAR, 2007; Ehrhardt and Valle-Esquivel, 2008). Consequently, 
basic dimensions such as shell length and weight are not reliable 
indicators of queen conch maturity, and based on current literature, 
the existing shell size regulations in many range states would allow 
for the legal harvest of conch considered to be juveniles (Stoner et 
al., 2012b). A review of fishing regulations concluded that minimum 
sizes set by fishery managers are allowing immature queen conch to be 
harvested legally in most Caribbean nations, providing at least a 
partial explanation for overexploitation (Stoner et al., 2012b). In 
addition, the ``flared lip'' criterion for legal harvest does not 
guarantee that the conch is mature. Harvest of conch with a flared 
shell lip is required in a number of countries to ensure conch are 
mature (British Virgin Islands, Caribbean Netherlands, Grenada, 
Jamaica, Nicaragua, Martinique, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Island, St. 
Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines). Other 
countries require a shell-lip thickness between 5 to 10 mm (Antigua and 
Barbuda, Cuba, Martinique, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin 
Islands).
    Several studies have found that the shell thickness is a better 
criterion to ensure that those harvested are not juveniles (Appeldoorn, 
1994; Clerveaux et al., 2005; Cala et al., in press; Stoner et al., 
2012b). Recent information indicates that shell thickness at 
reproductive maturity is much higher than previous estimates. Stoner et 
al. (2012b) found that the minimum shell thickness for reproductive 
maturity was 12 mm for females and 9 mm for males, and 50 percent 
maturity for a population was attained at 26 mm for females and 24 mm 
for males. Based on these findings, a shell thickness of at least 15 mm 
was recommended to be set throughout the Caribbean region to ensure 
harvested individuals are mature.
    The current lip thickness requirements in countries that regulate 
based on lip thickness are, therefore, less effective at ensuring 
sustainability of the population. Moreover, there are no accompanying 
regulations that require queen conch to be landed in shell. The 
majority of range states extract the conch from its the shell at sea. 
This makes it difficult to determine whether the minimum size 
requirements are adhered to by conch fisheries.
    MPAs are another common regulatory measure. The level of regulatory 
protection varies by MPA. Reporting on the protection of coral reefs 
globally, Mora et al. (2006) reported 5.3 percent of global reefs were 
in MPAs that allowed take, 12 percent were inside multi-use MPAs that 
were defined as zoned areas including take and no-take grounds, and 1.4 
percent were in no-take MPAs. The term MPA can be broadly applied to 
include a wide range of regulatory structures including marine 
reserves, marine parks, and protected areas. Many MPAs have now been 
established throughout the world with the primary goals of preserving 
natural community and population structures while helping to sustain 
harvested species. Specifically, some Caribbean countries (e.g., 
Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, Honduras, Belize, the Bahamas, and Cuba) 
that have extensive conch harvest have established no-take reserves or 
MPAs (NMFS, 2014b). There is evidence that no-take marine reserves can 
be successful fisheries management tools. Appeldoorn (2004) suggested 
that the most productive queen conch areas be included in MPAs to offer 
an added degree of precaution for stock conservation. Many have been 
shown to increase conch populations, either relative to areas outside 
of the reserves or to the same area before the reserve was established 
(Stoner and Ray, 1996; Tewfik and Bene, 2000; Grabowshi and Tewfik, 
2000; Roberts et al., 2001; Glazer et al., 2003; Chan et al., 2013). An 
increase in abundance within an MPA can ``spill over'' into adjacent

[[Page 65640]]

areas through emigration (Roberts, 1995; Glazer et al., 2003) and may 
also increase larvae supply to sink populations (Roberts et al., 2001; 
Glazer et al., 2003). An MPA may function as a ``source'' of recruits 
by protecting reproductive stocks and thereby reducing the likelihood 
of Allee effects occurring (Glazer et al., 2003). The effectiveness of 
an MPA depends on the implementation and enforcement of regulations, 
but also on reserve location (Halpern, 2003).
    In summary, there are numerous regulatory strategies used by the 
various jurisdictions in the range of queen conch to regulate harvest, 
including seasonal and spatial closures, minimum size limits, MPAs and 
no take zones, and gear limits. The ERA group rankings indicate that 
regulatory enforcement and the inadequacy of existing fishery 
regulations in foreign countries were ``increasing risk'' threats. The 
members of the group also ranked the regulatory measures in foreign 
countries as an ``increasing risk'' threat. The ERA group ranking 
indicates that the members thought that the existing regulatory 
measures in the U.S. Federal and state waters were a ``low risk'' 
threat. The best available information indicates that most of the 
existing regulations designed to regulate conch harvest are inadequate 
and do not prevent overharvest or the harvest of juvenile conch. It is 
also difficult to measure regulatory compliance; it is likely that in 
some cases, enforcement is non-existent, which allows for significant 
illegal harvest, juvenile harvest, and poaching.
    The creation of MPAs and no take zones have benefited queen conch 
stocks by protecting those areas from harvest (CITES, 2012). And 
although there have been difficulties in implementing CITES in relation 
to queen conch, CITES has proven to be a useful tool in conch harvest 
regulation. Through CITES a number of trade embargoes have been 
implemented. These embargoes do not stop all harvest in the affected 
countries, as there still is poaching and harvest for domestic 
consumption; however, these embargoes most certainly reduce the numbers 
of conch harvested. CITES member countries are also actively working 
together to improve data gathering and reporting and coordinating 
conservation efforts. We believe that the implementation of CITES adds 
an extra layer of conservation and protection that helps to reduce the 
impacts of the inadequate regulatory mechanisms found in countries.
    The ERA group's ``increasing risk'' ranking indicate that members 
thought that international trade regulations, existing fishery 
regulations in foreign countries, and regulatory enforcement are 
significant threats, where the present risk is low or moderate, but is 
likely to increase to high risk in the foreseeable future if present 
conditions continue. We also believe that the inadequacy of existing 
regulatory mechanisms is a significant threat to queen conch. However, 
based on the seasonal fishery closures that protect the reproductive 
adults, the establishment of MPAs and no-take zones, and implementation 
of CITES in relation to queen conch, we have determined that the 
current and foreseeable future impacts associated with these threats 
are not affecting the queen conch to such an extent that they represent 
a risk to persistence of the species.

Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting Its Continued Existence

    Ocean acidification is a result of global climate change and is 
considered here because the effect is a result of human activity and 
affects individual animals. The ERA group ranked the threat of ocean 
acidification on the queen conch as a ``moderate risk'' indicating that 
the threat contributes significantly to long term risk of extinction, 
but does not constitute a danger of extinction in the near future.
    Ocean acidification is a term referring to changes in ocean 
carbonate chemistry, including a drop in the pH of ocean waters, that 
is occurring in response to the rise in the quantity of atmospheric 
CO2 and the partial pressure of CO2 
(pCO2) absorbed in oceanic waters (Caldeira and 
Wickett, 2003). As pCO2 rises, oceanic pH 
declines. Carbonate ions are used by many marine organisms to build 
calcium carbonate shells. One well-known effect of ocean acidification 
is the lowering of calcium carbonate saturation states (i.e., the 
concentration of carbonate ions in water needed to precipitate out of 
solution to create a shell), which impacts shell-forming marine 
organisms (Doney et al., 2009). Some molluscs' shells are formed with a 
particular calcium carbonate crystal called aragonite; the 
concentration of the carbonate ions in the ocean relative to this 
crystal is measured as the aragonite saturation state. Decreasing pH 
and aragonite saturation state are expected to have a major impact on 
shelled molluscs and other marine organisms this century (Fabry et al., 
2008). Current atmospheric CO2 levels have resulted in a 
Caribbean open-ocean aragonite saturation state of less than 3.8. A 
Caribbean open-ocean aragonite saturation state of 4.0 equated to an 
atmospheric CO2 level stabilized at approximately 360 ppm, 
and models suggest a saturation state of 3.0 equates to an atmospheric 
CO2 level of 530-570 ppm (Simpson et al. 2009).
    The queen conch secretes a shell comprised of the aragonite form of 
calcium carbonate (Kamat et al., 2000). The queen conch begins to 
develop the shell during its larvae life stage; the shell thickens as 
the conch ages. The conch's shell supports its living tissue, protects 
against predators, and excludes sediments from entering its mantle 
cavity. The effects of ocean acidification on shell growth and 
production vary among molluscs (Gazeau et al., 2013). Increasing 
acidification can affect the conch's shell production in one of two, 
not mutually exclusive, ways. The first is by requiring more energy for 
shell formation, at a cost to growth rate (Doney, 2006). Alternatively, 
conch could incorporate the less available calcium carbonate in their 
shell, making a less dense and weaker shell (Doney, 2006).
    We were unable to locate information related specifically to ocean 
acidification and its effects on queen conch, but we were able to 
locate some information on other strombids (e.g., Strombus luhuanus and 
Strombus alatis), which also form aragonite shells. Reduced shell 
growth was observed in Strombus luhuanus when grown in 560 ppm 
CO2 over a 6-month period (Doney et al., 2013). Strombus 
alatis showed no effects of pH within the range of projected values for 
the end of the century, but significant effects are projected to occur 
by 2300 at pH levels between -0.6 and -0.7 below current levels (Gazeau 
et al., 2013).
    Changing climate may also have other, more subtle effects that 
could impact queen conch larval dispersal and habitat availability. 
Currents are expected to be affected under future climates (Liu et al., 
2012), which could change the rate and direction of larval dispersal 
and population connectivity. Effects of these changes are not known; 
results could be either positive or negative to conch populations. 
Habitat may change as a result of climate change and impact settlement 
rates. The increase in surface water temperature could influence the 
timing of conch reproduction. Hurricane activity has been found to 
negatively impact queen conch populations in Turks and Caicos (DEMA, 
2012). If the frequency/intensity of extreme weather conditions 
increases with sea surface temperatures as some predict, reductions in 
the local queen conch populations may occur.
    Life-history characteristics were also considered because there are 
certain

[[Page 65641]]

characteristics that can increase the queen conch's vulnerability to 
threats under this factor. The vulnerable life history characteristic 
of most concern for queen conch is the proximity of adult conch 
aggregation/mating/egg laying and juvenile nursery areas to the shore 
and in shallow waters. The close proximity to shore/shallow water 
locations makes the queen conch more vulnerable to fisheries during 
important stages of its life history, as these areas are accessible and 
easily exploitable. These life-history characteristics increase the 
species' vulnerability and have the potential to result in future, 
further population declines driven by the primary threats of 
overharvest and the inadequacy of the regulatory mechanisms designed to 
control harvest.
    In summary, the ERA group ranked the threat of ocean acidification 
on the queen conch as a ``moderate risk'' indicating that the threat 
contributes significantly to long-term risk of extinction, but does not 
constitute a danger of extinction in the near future. The impacts from 
ocean acidification and climate change are not projected to affect 
aragonite saturation states to a point where queen conch will be 
threatened within the foreseeable future. While the threat of ocean 
acidification and climate change could represent a potential future 
threat, at this time, ocean acidification and global warming are not 
negatively affecting the species.
    The ERA group ranked the species vulnerable life-history 
characteristics as ``increasing risk,'' indicating that, at present, 
the extinction risk to queen conch resulting from vulnerable life-
history characteristics is low or moderate, but is likely to increase 
to high risk in the foreseeable future if present conditions continue. 
As discussed above, the queen conch has some life-history 
characteristics that make it more vulnerable to overexploitation, but 
conversely, the species also has some life-history characteristics that 
function as a buffer against overexploitation. For example, it reaches 
reproductive maturity relatively early in age and is highly productive. 
The queen conch is long lived, up to 30 years, and reaches reproductive 
maturity relatively early at about 4 years of age. The queen conch is 
also highly fecund, producing up to 13 egg masses a year, with each egg 
mass containing anywhere from 500,000 to 750,000 eggs. In addition, 
conch larvae are planktonic and have high dispersal capabilities; which 
allows them to recruit and reestablish overfished populations. There 
are some aspects of the species life-history strategy that increase its 
vulnerability to the principle threat of commercial harvest, but the 
species' reproductive rate and larval dispersal make them more 
resilient to this threat. Therefore, we have determined that the 
current and foreseeable future impacts associated with threats due to 
other natural or manmade factors are not affecting the queen conch to 
such an extent that they represent a risk to persistence of the 
species.

Conservation Efforts

    In May 2012, a Queen Conch Expert Workshop was convened to develop 
recommendations for the sustainable and legal management of the 
species. The results of the Expert Workshop included recommendations on 
data collection, harvest strategies, precautionary controls, fishing 
capacity, ecosystem management, decision-making and enforcement and 
compliance. In Panama City, Panama, in October 2012, these 
recommendations were reviewed and adopted by the Working Group on Queen 
Conch of the Western and Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission of the 
FAO (WECAFC), the Caribbean Fishery Management Council (CFMC), the 
Organization of the Fishing and Aquaculture Sector of Central America 
(OSPESCA) and the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM). In the 
Declaration of Panama that resulted from the meeting, the group made 
further recommendations, including support of the development of a 
regional plan for the management and conservation of queen conch. The 
other main recommendation requires countries and inter-governmental 
organizations of the region to collaborate more closely with CITES to 
support the sustainable and legal harvest and trade of the species.
    In March 2013, the Sixteenth Meeting of the Conference of the 
Parties to CITES (CoP16) adopted several decisions to promote regional 
cooperation on the management and trade of queen conch (CITES Decisions 
16.141-16.148). Among the actions called for in these decisions, range 
states are encouraged to adopt the recommendations stemming from the 
meeting of the Working Group on Queen Conch (the Declaration of Panama) 
discussed above; participate in the development of national, sub-
regional, and regional plans for queen conch management and 
conservation, including best practices and guidance for making non-
detriment findings; develop and adopt conversion factors to standardize 
data reported on catch and trade of meat and other products of queen 
conch; explore ways to enhance traceability of queen conch in trade; 
and collaborate on joint research programs.
    Recently, in March 2014, the 15th biennial meeting of the WECAFC 
was convened in Trinidad and Tobago. The WECAFC adopted specific 
management measures for queen conch that emulated the Declaration of 
Panama and recommended that members implement them. The WECAFC members 
considered IUU fishing of queen conch a major problem in the region, 
and requested members renew their efforts to deter fishers from IUU 
fishing (WECAFC, 2014; Daves, 2014).
    In summary, there are conservation efforts and new management 
measures being considered that are expected to benefit the species. 
However, at this time, it is not possible to determine any future 
positive benefit to the species that may result from efforts currently 
being contemplated by fisheries managers. In addition, we cannot 
determine which range states/entities, if any, will implement these 
conservation efforts or new management measures. Due to uncertainties 
surrounding their implementation we cannot be reasonably certain that 
these benefits will occur.

Significant Portion of Its Range

    The ESA definitions of ``endangered species'' and ``threatened 
species'' refer to two spatial scales: A species' entire range or a 
significant portion of its range. Our framework initially evaluated the 
queen conch throughout its range to determine extinction risk. We have 
found that listing the queen conch is not warranted at the spatial 
scale of its entire range, so we must consider if a ``significant 
portion of its range'' is at higher risk, such that it elevates the 
entire species' status to endangered or threatened. However, this 
evaluation can only be conducted if a ``significant portion of its 
range'' where the species' status is more imperiled can be identified.
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NMFS--together, ``the 
Services''--have jointly finalized a policy interpreting the phrase 
``significant portion of its range'' (SPOIR) (79 FR 37578; July 1, 
2014). The SPOIR policy provides that: (1) If a species is found to be 
endangered or threatened in only a significant portion of its range, 
the entire species is listed as endangered or threatened, respectively, 
and the ESA's protections apply across the species' entire range; (2) a 
portion of the range of a species is ``significant'' if the species is 
not currently endangered or threatened throughout its range, and the 
portion's contributions to the viability of the species is so important 
that, without the members in that portion, the species

[[Page 65642]]

would be in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the 
foreseeable future, throughout all of its range; and (3) the range of a 
species is considered to be the general geographical area within which 
that species can be found at the time we make any particular status 
determination. We evaluated whether substantial information indicated 
that (i) the portions may be significant and (ii) the species occupying 
those portions may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so 
within the foreseeable future (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). Under the 
SPOIR policy, both considerations must apply to warrant listing a 
species as threatened or endangered throughout its range based upon its 
status within a portion of the range.
    As discussed above, the available information on the gene flow of 
queen conch is limited, but there is some evidence of possible genetic 
separation occurring between some queen conch populations. Queen conch 
larvae transport models show that there is low probability of 
connectivity between queen conch in Caribbean Mexico, Alacranes Reef in 
the southern Gulf of Mexico, and downstream populations in Florida, 
Cuba, and northwest to the Bahamas (Paris et al., 2008). In Mexico 
mitochondrial DNA marker analysis showed that queen conch at the 
Alacranes Reef were genetically distinct from conch populations at 
Cozumel and Banco Chinchorro in Mexico that were separated by 280 and 
400 miles, respectively (Perez-Enriquez et al., 2011). Similarly, in 
the Bahamas, preliminary data detected genetic separation in queen 
conch populations that were located approximately 310 miles from one 
another (Banks et al., 2014). In addition, two nearby populations of 
queen conch in St. Lucia were found to be genetically different from 
each other, most likely a result of the east and west currents that 
prohibit the exchange of larvae between the two locations (Mitton et 
al., 1989). However, we did not find that the available information 
supported a conclusion that the loss of genetic diversity from one 
portion would result in the remaining population lacking enough genetic 
diversity to allow for adaptations to changing environmental 
conditions.
    The consequences of decades of overharvest have resulted in 
estimates indicating that over 60 percent of habitat, in the Caribbean, 
ranging from 0 to 30 m, have adult conch densities below the 100 
individuals/ha threshold. However, as noted previously, there are 
significant questions regarding whether these densities are reflective 
of actual population status. If accurate, the extremely low density 
conch populations in these areas are at risk of depensatory processes 
or Allee effects (such as reduced likelihood of finding a mate and 
recruitment success). However, the SFD assessment (NMFS, 2014c) 
indicates that conch landings have remained stable from 2000 through 
2011 at high levels, which is inconsistent with the low density 
estimates. Also, with conch being highly fecund (i.e., producing 3 to 
10 million eggs per individual per season), stability of harvest over a 
long term may indicate that recruitment is occurring from areas that 
are not fished, such as deep water areas, or from areas where mating is 
occurring at a higher rate, because conch densities are above the 100 
adult conch/hectare threshold, and conch larval can disperse over a 
broad geographic range. Based on the relative genetic homogeneity of 
the species, high fecundity/productivity, and expansive larval 
dispersal capabilities, even areas below the 100 adult conch/ha 
threshold are maintaining stable landings. Therefore, after a review of 
the best available information, we did not find substantial evidence 
that would indicate that the loss of queen conch in any portion of the 
species' range would limit the species to the point where it would be 
in danger of extinction throughout all of its range, or likely to 
become so in the foreseeable future. In addition, there is no evidence 
that suggests that there is a portion of the species' range which 
encompasses aspects that are important to the species' specific life 
history events, where the loss of that portion would severally impact 
the growth, reproduction, or survival of the species as a whole. We 
have evaluated the species throughout its range to determine if there 
is a portion that is significant and have concluded that the 
information does not indicate any portion's contribution to the 
viability of the species is so important that, without the members in 
that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction. 
Consequently, we are unable to identify a ``significant portion of its 
range'' for the queen conch that would change the determination 
relative to the status of the species rangewide.

Listing Determination

    Section 4(b)(1) of the ESA requires that NMFS make listing 
determinations based solely on the best scientific and commercial data 
available after conducting a review of the status of the species and 
taking into account those efforts, if any, being made by any state or 
foreign nation, or political subdivisions thereof, to protect and 
conserve the species. We have independently reviewed the best available 
scientific and commercial information including the petition, public 
comments submitted on the 90-day finding (77 FR 51763; August 27, 
2012), the status report (NMFS, 2014a), and other published and 
unpublished information. We considered each of the Section 4(a)(1) 
factors to determine whether it presented an extinction risk to the 
species. As required by the ESA, Section 4(b)(1)(a), we also looked at 
whether there are any conservation efforts to protect queen conch by 
states or foreign nations. We were unable to identify any conservation 
efforts that were reasonably certain to occur that would benefit the 
species. As previously explained, we could not identify a significant 
portion of the species' range, where its status is different than that 
we have identified for the species rangewide. Therefore, our 
determination is based on a synthesis and integration of the foregoing 
information, factors and considerations, and their effects on the 
status of the species throughout its entire range.
    We conclude that the queen conch is not presently in danger of 
extinction, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable future 
throughout its entire range. The species is made up of a single 
population over a broad geographic range, and its current range is 
indistinguishable from its historical range and there is little 
evidence of significant habitat loss or destruction. The species 
possesses life-history characteristics that increase its vulnerability 
to harvest, but it also possesses life-history characteristics that are 
conducive to population resilience. While there are significant 
questions as to the reliability of the density estimates, the best 
available information indicates that there are localized population 
declines. The best available survey data also shows evidence that there 
are populations which are currently suffering from depensatory 
processes (such as reduced likelihood of finding a mate and recruitment 
success). Nonetheless, queen conch harvest has remained high, as 
indicated by the landings, indicating that conch mating and larvae 
recruitment is occurring, which further reinforces the questions 
regarding the accuracy of the density estimates.
    The ERA group's threats assessment indicated that the primary 
threat to queen conch is harvest; however, taking into account 
regulatory changes and missing landings, the cumulative trend in 
landings appear to be stable (NMFS, 2014b). In fact, there is a stable 
trend in landings from 1993 forward, which also corresponds well with 
improvements in

[[Page 65643]]

data reporting (NMFS, 2014b). There are existing regulatory mechanisms 
throughout the species' range--although catch limits and seasonal and 
spatial closures appear to be the most effective in addressing the 
primary threat to the species (harvest). There are also significant 
concerns related to the enforcement of existing regulations; however, 
CITES has embargoed many countries for not complying with their 
obligations under the treaty. In some cases, CITES references the lack 
of regulatory enforcement as a factor that contributed to embargo 
decisions. In addition, despite continued deficiencies related to 
enforcement and regulatory compliance in queen conch fisheries, this 
threat does not appear to be impacting the species' continued 
existence, as conch landings trends appear to be stable.
    Although the global population has likely declined from historical 
numbers, the species still occurs over a broad geographic range, has 
dispersal mechanisms that have ensured high degrees of genetic mixing, 
and its current range is unchanged from its historical range. In 
addition, there is little evidence to suggest that disease or predation 
is contributing to increasing the risk of extinction of the species.
    Based on these findings, we conclude that the queen conch is not 
currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant 
portion of its range, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable 
future. While ongoing conservation efforts could be more effective, 
since the queen conch is not currently in danger of extinction 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range or likely to 
become so in the foreseeable future, we do not need to rely on the 
effectiveness of conservation efforts to make this finding. 
Accordingly, the queen conch does not meet the definition of a 
threatened or endangered species, and our listing determination is that 
the queen conch does not warrant listing as threatened or endangered at 
this time.

References

    A complete list of all references cited herein is available upon 
request (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).

Authority

    The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 
1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: October 30, 2014.
Samuel D. Rauch, III,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2014-26324 Filed 11-4-14; 8:45 am]
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