Archaeologists do not know exactly how many Tainos survived the enslavement, massacres, and disease that marked the following centuries, although genetic sampling reveals significant indigenous ancestry in contemporary Puerto Rico. But Taino stories and artifacts underscore the importance of basins: in their fishing and diving traditions; in the endless piles of snails they harvested, ate, and sharpened into tools and jewels; and in his little spirits objects carved in three points, originally inspired by the pointed top of a conch.
Evidence of basin overexploitation begins in its time, Keegan says. But the export pressure that precipitated the collapse dates back to the British Empire, which gave the queens their English name. An 18-year-old fashion girl when she ascended the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria loved coral pink shells. (Living on the seabed, the basins are not bright pink, but are faded into a dark fluff of seaweed.) He used his own cameo cutter to make his brooches and commemorative souvenirs; they helped inspire a frantic demand. Before the turn of the century, British scientists warned that monarch molluscs were being overfished.
“The profit when it is made into cameos and other works of art is enormous,” wrote Sir Augustus J. Adderley, the Bahamas’ fishing commissioner in Britain, in 1883. “I have the impression that this fish is not so abundant. as before, and that its protection is desirable. ” I wanted to advise a closing season to avoid fishing for queens, “but I’m afraid it’s not feasible.”
Political practicalities have overshadowed science ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, biologist Andrew Kough has helped quantify the “mass depletion” of queen snails in the Bahamas, with a large number of exports, research that also identified actions that could save -les. These include a wider network of untapped reserves, harvest limits based on shell thickness and, ultimately, an export ban. Bahamian government officials have pledged support for each of these measures. But regulation is hard to sell in a nation with about 10,000 artisanal snail fishermen. Without that, say Kough and other scientists, the Bahamas will follow the Florida Keys and lose fishing altogether.
Science may be able to raise healthy snails and return them to the sea, Kough says. But there is no evidence that the release of cultured juveniles can replicate the epic journeys of larvae seen in nature. The scale of natural reproduction as billions of larvae drift for miles through currents “far exceeds anything we could do in aquaculture,” he says. Also, a snail population is not saved if it is below the minimum breeding threshold, a figure directly linked to fishing pressure.
Davis agrees that breeders alone cannot save queens. But he believes aquaculture can put some pressure on wild basins, and that their role in building a conservation ethos is important. The Naguabo Nursery includes an outdoor touch tank where schoolchildren and tourists can pick up a queen, perhaps with a glimpse of her long foot or tentacles eyes. A team from the Bahamas is now equipping a mobile nursery in Exuma based on the Naguabo design, which local fishermen and community members run with a similar model. “Regulation is really the only other way, and it depends on the countries, to have management in place and national parks and marine protected areas,” Davis says. “But to see fishermen return a significant batch of eggs, and then see how these healthy basins metamorphose in 21 or 28 days, seems like a great success.”