Abundance and population structure of queen conch inside and outside a marine protected area: repeat surveys show significant declines
ABSTRACT: Effectiveness of a marine protected area (MPA) in supporting fisheries productivity depends upon replenishment patterns, both in supplying recruits to surrounding fished areas and having a sustainable spawning stock in the MPA. Surveys for queen conch Strombus gigas were made in 2011 at 2 locations in the Exuma Cays, The Bahamas, for direct comparison with surveys conducted during the early 1990s at Warderick Wells (WW) near the center of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) and at a fished site near Lee Stocking Island (LSI). There was no change in adult conch density and abundance in the shallow bank environment at LSI where numbers were already low in 1991, but numbers declined 91% in the deeper shelf waters. At WW, the adult population declined 69% on the bank and 6% on the island shelf. Unlike observations made in the 1990s, queen conch reproductive behavior near LSI is now rare. Average age of adult conch (indicated by shell thickness) at LSI decreased significantly during the 20 yr period between surveys, while average age increased at WW and juvenile abundance decreased. These results show that the LSI population is being overfished and the WW population is senescing because of low recruitment. In 2011, the ECLSP continued to be an important source of larvae for down- stream populations because of abundant spawners in the shelf environment. However, it is clear that the reserve is not self-sustaining for queen conch, and sustainable fishing in the Exuma Cays will depend upon a network of MPAs along with other management measures to reduce fishing mortality.