As the boat slowly tows her through the clear blue Caribbean waters, Catherine Booker ’08 (M.E.S.) simply clicks a counter for every conch she sees. Things, however, are a little trickier after the fieldwork is done: when she has to figure out how to protect a disappearing species that – steamed, breaded and fried – is the pride of the islands.
“In the Bahamas, there’s no such thing as a social gathering without conch on the menu. It’s a delicacy deeply embedded in the people’s cultural identity. The conch shell even appears on the country’s coat of arms,” Booker says. “Unfortunately, over- fishing has led to the collapse of many Caribbean fisheries, including those within U.S. territorial waters. We’re concerned that is happening here, too.”
Stationed on Great Exuma since 2008, Booker studies reproductive conch populations in order to provide the Bahamian government with the data they need to better manage the conch fishery. Her team has found that in some areas of the Bahamas, conch populations have decreased by up to 90 percent since the 1990s. Even more troubling is that the majority of conchs currently harvested are too young to reproduce.
“Queen conchs have this beautiful flared shell lip. You can actually estimate the age and sexual maturity of a conch by measuring the lip’s thickness,” Booker points out. “We’re hoping to develop a tool that fishers can use to determine if their catch is mature enough to keep or if it must be thrown back.”
Growing up in Savannah, Booker spent most of her childhood fishing and crabbing in the creeks near her home and exploring Georgia’s barrier islands. Her family took frequent vacations to the Bahamas, where her father taught her and her siblings to scuba dive.
“There was always something pulling me back down here. I just needed to be by the ocean,” Booker explains. “I studied marketing as an undergraduate because I thought that would help me get a good job. It took me a few years to figure out that I’m definitely not cut out for an office, but the training in business has turned out to be helpful in my work with a nonprofit organization.”
“There was always something pulling me back down here. I just needed to be by the ocean.”
After a marine conservation summer program at Duke University and a series of research projects in the Exuma Cays, where she met College marine biologist Phil Dustan, Booker moved back to the Lowcountry to pursue her M.E.S. degree. During graduate school, she continued her work in the Bahamas and eventually teamed up with colleagues to create Community Conch, an organization devoted to promoting sustainable harvest of the queen conch through research and community outreach.
When she’s not in the water for Community Conch, Booker leads an environmental club at the only high school on Exuma and volunteers for a community-based harbor conservation organization that she helped establish. Over time, she’s adjusted to the slow, breezy “island time” lifestyle and has found that a quiet, one-highway life suits her just fine.
“When I was in grad school, I was always rushing to achieve my goals, but that’s not how things work here,” she notes. “It has forced me to slow down and lead a more balanced life. It’s also nice having an ocean in your backyard.”
The Queen conch remains an internationally endangered species because of the continued decline of conch stocks. Exports from the Bahamas
may soon be affected if it is listed as endangered in the U.S. Influenced in part by Community Conch’s research and advocacy, the Bahamas National Trust has launched a national “Conch- servation” campaign to raise public awareness about the issue and push for tighter fishing regulations. A key part of the campaign is a citizen science project that Booker developed with her Bahamian partners.
“Working and living in the Bahamas, I’ve learned that sometimes just getting the data is not enough. The message has to be communicated effectively to the public, and to decision makers. People have to understand the real issues and the consequences of doing nothing, especially in a small country with limited resources. It’s not just about protecting a species, but preserving a whole way of life.”
And, even though that’s not something you can just click off, Booker is standing up to get the conch counted.
– Kristen Gehrman ’11