Forty queen conchs were returned to the ocean alive after they were illegally harvested by two divers. Both divers were arrested and charged with harvesting a federally protected species, as the harvest of conch from U.S. waters is prohibited.
Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy Nelson Sanchez received a text message shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, alerting him to a group that came in to the dock at the rear of the Days Inn in Islamorada with a large number of queen conch. The reporting person gave the deputy a description of the truck the people were driving.
Deputy Sanchez stopped the truck as it was pulling out of the parking lot. He approached the truck and asked if they were in possession of queen conch. The driver, George Galiszewski of Miami, admitted to having conch in the truck. Both he and one of the passengers, Elena McGrane, also of Miami, admitted to harvesting the conch, sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin said.
Deputy Sanchez inspected the conch and realized they were still alive. He photographed them for evidence and then returned them to the ocean.
Both Galiszewski and McGrane were arrested. Each was charged with 20 counts possession of queen conch and were booked into the Monroe County jail.
Federal fishery managers announced this week that they will review the queen conch for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. Years of overfishing nearly wiped out the population, prompting the federal government to declare conch endangered and prohibit commercial harvesting in 1975, followed by bans on recreational collecting from state waters in 1985 and federal waters in 1986.
The National Marine Fisheries Service news comes after the national group WildEarth Guardians submitted a petition in March asking the species be listed as threatened or endangered under the act. It begins a 12-month status review of queen conch.
In 1987, there were 28,000 adult conchs in the nearshore and offshore waters from Key Largo to Key West. The population has grown to more than 80,000 today, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientist Gabe Delgado, who along with fellow FWC scientist Bob Glazer, conducts annual surveys of conch in the Keys.
"I'm not sure how much of an issue it is, but poaching is an issue," Delgado said. "In the grand scheme of things, 40 might not seem like a lot. However, on an aggregation-by-aggregation basis, 40 could be a big deal."
Records show commercial fishermen harvested an average of 250,000 conchs annually in the waters of the Keys and Bahamas in the mid-1960s, with a peak of 1 million taken in a single year.
The United States is the largest importer of queen conch, importing about 78 percent of the queen conch meat in international trade, about 2,000 to 2,500 tons annually. The listing would prohibit the importation of queen conch.
The queen conch is a large mollusk with a distinctive spiral shell that has blunt spikes and a pearly pink or orange interior. The species can grow to 12 inches in shell-length and weigh up to 5 pounds.
Conch is found throughout the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, from Bermuda and Florida in the northern extent of its range to Brazil in the south.