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Disminucion de la densidad y actividades reproductivas de la concha reina Strombus gigas (Mesogastropoda: Strombidae) en el Banco Chinchorro, Caribe Oriental.

Declining densities and reproductive activities of the queen conch Strombus gigas (Mesogastropoda: Strombidae) in Banco Chinchorro, eastern Caribbean, Mexico

The Queen conch (Strombus gigas L. 1758), a gastropod inhabiting in the Caribbean Sea, has been extensively captured up to levels of near extinction (Appeldoorn, Dennis & Monterrosa-Lopez, 1987; Berg & Olsen, 1989) as it represents the second largest fishery after the spiny lobster (Appeldoorn, 1994). World Queen conch landings have been calculated around 6 000 metric tons with a value of 60 million US dollars (Chakalall & Cochrane, 1997). Populations of S. gigas have been affected almost in all countries where they are exploited at a commercial scale (Brownell & Stevely, 1981; Davis & Hesse, 1983). This is even more evident in countries where the fishery has been open to SCUBA diving (Stoner & Schwarte, 1994). The exhaustion of stocks has forced, at least temporarily, closure of fishing of S. gigas in Bermuda, Florida, Cuba, Bonaire, and the Virgin Islands (Stoner & Schwarte, 1994). Since 1992 S. gigas is considered a threatened species by CITES (Appeldoorn, 1994).

Unfortunately, studies of reproductive activities are scarce for S. gigas and other gastropods. In Chile, Avendano, Cantillanez, Olivares & Oliva (1997, 1998) studied reproductive activities of Thais chocolata and found that these gastropods group together for reproduction in a range from 29 to 376 individuals in shallow waters. In the Caribbean, the first studies on conch reproductive activities were realized in the Turk and Caicos Islands (Davis & Hesse, 1983) and Puerto Rico (Egan, 1985; Appeldoorn, 1993). In The Bahamas, Stoner & Ray (2000) described the reproductive activities of S. gigas and found a relation with population density. Their results indicate a sigmoid relationship between density of adults and their reproductive activities, while sites with smaller densities 56 (ind./ha.) showed no reproductive activity and reproduction reached an asymptotic level near 200 mature (ind./ ha.). In 2003, Tewfik and colleagues studied the distribution and abundance of S. gigas and S. costatus at Bocas del Toro, Panama; their results indicated a low adult density and the authors point out the possibility of an Allee effect in conch population, as a result of unsustainable fishing activities. Gascoin & Lipcius (2004) showed a direct relationship between the reproductive index (RI) and the density at the site of origin of conchs, linking it thereby to the Allee effect. Recently, Stoner et al. (2012) showed the impact of population change on the reproductive activities of Queen conch in The Bahamas.

For the Yucatan Peninsula we only found two studies dealing with Queen conch reproductive activities. One study was carried out in the Alacranes reef by Perez-Perez & Aldana-Aranda (2003) who showed that reproductive activity of S. gigas occurs in the period from January to October. Aldana-Aranda, Baqueiro-Cardenas, Martinez Morales & Ochoa Baez (2003) studied the reproductive behaviour of Queen conch using the gonadic development in Banco Chinchorro, and showed that during the five months of sampling, gametogenesis and mature organisms were present, whereas spawning occurred from June to August, with the highest peak in July. The evaluation of the reproductive activities of organisms under exploitation is extremely important, as extraction without control could limit the reproductive capacity, due to a reduction of the overall population size, or could influence the adult reproductive capacity (known as Allee effect) (Avendano et al., 1998). The main objective of this research is to determine the density, distribution and size structure of the Queen conch population in a reef lagoon, as well as to analyse density changes over time and to relate these parameters to reproductive activities.


Study area: The Banco Chinchorro Marine Biosphere Reserve (18[degrees]47', 18[degrees]14'N -87[degrees]14', 87[degrees]27' W) is a reef complex located on the South-Eastern coast of Quintana Roo. The Reserve has a surface of 144 360ha and includes reef formations, a reef lagoon, and three keys: Lobos, Centro and Norte, and is located adjacent to oceanic waters (INE SEMARNAP, 2000).

Sampling was carried out inside the reef lagoon during July and November, 2009 in three distinct zones: North (17 245ha), Central (21 110ha) and South (15 461ha), and at 15 sampling sites (E1, to E15), traditionally considered as fishing zones by local fishermen of S. gigas. Results were compared with data collected previously at the same sampling sites (1990, 1992, 1994, and 1997) (Fig. 1). At each station, triplicate transects of 100m x 3m were set using distance sampling. Distance sampling consists of using visual observation to evaluate population density and size. The perpendicular distance of an organism along the transect was registered and this was used to calculate the detection function which gives the probability of an object or organisms, at a given distance, being observed in transect (Buckland, Anderson, Burnham & Laake, 1993).

Conch sampling: All conchs found within transects were counted to calculate density. Siphonal length of all conchs was measured and used to evaluate the size distribution in each zone. The following reproductive categories or products were registered for each transects: a) copulation: the penis inside the genital channel, b) spawning: females placing egg masses, c) adult aggregations: groups of adults together and interacting and d) egg masses: eggs masses lay by females. In order to avoid disturbing individuals during copulation and spawning processes, only solitary conchs were collected and transported to the boat, where shell length and lip thickness were registered using a calliper to the nearest mm (Appeldoorn, 1988). All conchs with a lip thickness greater than 4mm were considered mature according to Avila-Poveda & Baqueiro-Cardenas (2006).

To relate the frequency of reproductive events to the physical variables of the water in each area, the following variables were measured: temperature, oxygen concentration and salinity, according to De Jesus-Navarrete (1999) using an oxygen meter YSI model 550A with a precision of 0.01[degrees]C (temperature) and 0.1mg/L (oxygen). Salinity was measured using a portable refractometer Extech model RF20 with a precision of 0.1 using the Practical Salinity Scale.

To determine the relationship between water parameters and density, a correlation analysis (Pearson, 0.05) was undertaken. The software Distance Sampling 5.0 was used to calculate conch population densities in each station, and to estimate the overall number of conchs in each zone. A bi-factorial ANOVA was used to determine statistical significance of differences between population densities, sampling months, and zones (North, Central and South). A multifactorial ANOVA was used to show differences between population density, zones and years using Statgraphics 6.0.


Total conch density: A total area of 48 600[m.sup.2] was examined (81 transects). During July, conch densities at South, Central, and North zones were 541, 369 and 367ind./ha, respectively. In November, the South zone had the highest density 363ind./ha; in the Central and North zones the densities were 203 and 241ind./ha respectively. Considering only adult specimens (lip>4mm), in July we observed a density of 23ind./ha, in the South zone, followed by the North Zone with 15ind./ ha. The Central Zone had the lowest density of 9ind./ha. During November, adult numbers were slightly higher; the South zone exhibited the highest density in the period (96ind./ ha), and the Central and North zones had 39 and 38ind./ha, respectively. Comparing annual changes in conch densities, there was a trend towards low population densities overall in adult organisms (Table 1). When total conch density was analysed, no significant differences between months and zones (p=0.74, F=0.11) were found. However, when considering only the adult fraction, a significant statistical difference was shown between adult density in each season (p=0.0149). Comparing density, years and age classes using multifactorial ANOVA showed significant differences in density between years, and age class (p<0.05). A LSD test however, showed no differences between 2009 and 1997.

Size distribution: Shell length was measured for a total of 1 272 conchs in the two study periods. Shell sizes varied from 41mm to 314mm with a mean length of 179.96 [+ or -] 51.97mm (Table 2). In July, 580 conchs were measured, with a mean length of 170.80 [+ or -] 46.28mm. In November, 692 conchs were measured, indicating a small increase in mean shell length (187.63 [+ or -] 45.15mm) (Table 2). Considering the zones, the mean lengths obtained were 187.60 [+ or -] 39.89, 185.30 [+ or -] 41.27 and 145.29 [+ or -] 52.74mm for the Southern, Central and North zones, respectively (Table 2). In July, conch sizes varied from 41mm to 297mm, with a mean size of 170.80 [+ or -] 46.28mm, the more frequent size being 180-189mm (93 conchs) (Fig. 2A), of which only 5.51% were mature. In November, 692 conchs were measured, of which 21.93% were mature. Shell length varied from 57mm to 314mm with a mean size of 187.63 [+ or -] 45.14mm, the highest frequency being 210-219mm (136 conchs) (Fig. 2B).

Queen conch reproductive activities: Egg masses and spawning were absent, and copula was registered only once in July 2009 in shallow (3m) sandy, patchy coral. A total of 35 grouped conchs were registered with clusters varying from two to four mature conchs. The number of solitary adults in July was 13 for the South zone, eight for the Central zone, and 10 for the North zone. In November, the number of solitary conchs was higher than in July, 82 adults were registered in the South zone, 41 in the Central and 28 in the North zone (Fig. 3).

Comparing conch density throughout the past 20 years, a decrease at all sites within the Chinchorro Bank was evident. Density variation was found to be three orders of magnitude lower than conch densities in 1990 (Table 1).

Physical parameters: Water temperature varied from 24.4 to 29.8[degrees]C during the sampling period, whereas oxygen varied from 6.08 to 6.5mg/L and salinity fluctuated from 35.0 to 38.5 UPS. No correlation between conch density and physical parameters was found (Pearson correlation, [r.sup.2]<0.50).


Various authors have mentioned that conch distribution and reproduction depend on several factors, mainly temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water column, as well as sediment type and microalgal biomass at the sea bottom; additionally, the presence of conspecifics has an important effect on reproductive activities (Appeldoorn, 1988; Davis & Hesse, 1983). Furthermore, there are variations during the year, related to seasonal changes. During this research we only collected data during two months corresponding to the dry and rainy seasons, but we could prove that a low population density and adult abundance influences the likelihood of reproductive encounters.

The basic premise in sustainable fishing is to capture only population surpluses, thereby avoiding damage to the overall reproductive capacity. When overexploitation disrupts this delicate balance, fishing activities cause alterations in the stock as they diminish total biomass, change mean conch size, alter the age of sexual maturity, and modify sex proportions and genetic structure (De Jesus-Navarrete, Medina-Quej & Oliva-Rivera, 2003). The evaluation of changes in density is of vital importance to determine if fishing activities are causing changes in the adult population, which could affect reproductive activities and thereby producing an Allee effect. Changes in population density at Banco Chinchorro are evident; populations had diminished almost 30% in 2009 compared with the same sites densities in 1990. The densities found during the research activities for this article can only confirm a decrease in population density and mean siphonal length of conchs. Additionally, we found that a decreased density of adult means fewer individuals for reproduction and consequently a decrease in the probability of adult encounters, or Allee effect (Berryman, 1999). Contrary to year-round reproduction of S. gigas at Banco Chinchorro, as reported (Cruz, 1986; Corral & Ogawa, 1987), we only observed a single copula, which could be the effect of a reduction in adult density.

In The Bahamas, Stoner & Ray (2000) reported that in populations with densities smaller than 56 and 48ind./ha, no copulation and spawning have been observed. Our results indicated that densities of mature conch in Banco Chinchorro are below densities reported by Stoner & Ray (2000), considering that in July the adult mean density in Banco Chinchorro was 15.5ind./ha and in November 57.65ind./ ha, which might explain the absence of reproductive activities. This apparent difference between months might be explained by local conch movements or it could be a product of conch recruitment in the reef lagoon. This cannot be determined based on the data resulting from our research, however we must emphasise the presence of a high percentage of juveniles in the samples and this could represent recruitment of conch in the reef lagoon.

In a previous evaluation, De Jesus-Navarrete (1999) found egg mass variation abundance from 0.015 (egg masses/[m.sup.2]) in the North zone in October, up to 0.03egg masses/ [m.sup.2] in the Central zone in May. This contrasts with the absence of egg masses in this study, and apparently this decrease in reproductive activity is related to a low adult conch density, and should be considered carefully in the conch management plan. Our observations in the field also differed from those mentioned by Aldana-Aranda, et al. (2003) who reported June as the month with the highest peak in reproductive activity in Banco Chinchorro, revealed by histological techniques. In Bocas del Toro, Panama, Tewfik & Guzman (2003) found a very low adult conch density 0.30 (ind./ha) and observed no reproductive activities, indicating the presence of an Allee effect as a consequence of a negative per capita growth rate in conch population. Tewfik, Guzman & Jacome, (1998) reported a total density of 14.6 (ind./ha) with 58% adults, and they observed only one pair of conchs copulating, a female spawning and only one egg mass was registered. The authors also point out that low conch density is a consequence of over-exploitation. In Banco Chinchorro, even with higher adult conch densities than in Cayos Cochinos (Tewfik & Guzman, 2003), we also observed a lack of reproductive activities.

In theory, conch are caught one year after the lip is formed, but differences exist between the time when conch reach the legal longitude (200mm) and sexual maturity (lip of 4mm width), which implies that the 90% of the population that is exploited corresponds to juveniles, with clear repercussions for the overall population (Berg & Olsen, 1989; Stoner et al., 2012). This difference could be demonstrated by our research in Banco Chinchorro, in which the mean shell length found was 170.80mm in July and 187.63mm in November, which is smaller than the effective legal size (200mm); thus an artificial selection induced by conch fishing may be caused. Another threat to conch population is illegal fishing, which has been estimated as similar to the legal catch, (8t/year) (De Jesus-Navarrete unpublished data); illegal fishing contributes to conch density decrease in Banco Chinchorro. In conclusion, densities of mature S. gigas were extremely low, and if this tendency continues then a negative effect on commercial fishing and an impact on conch biology, mainly on reproductive activity, will be observed in the short term. It is therefore necessary to analyse the management plan for this species in Banco Chinchorro immediately and perhaps to initiate a re-population of queen conch with cultured organisms.


We greatly appreciate the support of Banco Chinchorro Marine Reserve staff in the field data collection. This project was funded by CONANP-SEMARNAP. The comments of Frank Ocana, Birgit Schmook, Gerald Islebe and two anonymous reviewers substantially improved the manuscript.


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Alberto De Jesus-Navarrete (1) & Adriana Valencia-Hernandez (2)

(1.) Departamento de Aprovechamiento y Manejo de Recursos Acuaticos, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Unidad Chetumal, A.P. 424 Chetumal Quintana Roo, Mexico.

(2.) Licenciatura en Biologia, Instituto Tecnologico de Chetumal, Av. Insurgentes 330 esquina Av. Andres Quintana Roo, Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico;,

Received 22-I-2013. Corrected 06-V-2013. Accepted 06-VI-2013.

Conch density (ind./ha) in zones and months during 2009, and
historic conch density by year and zone in Banco Chinchorro
Marine Reserve

Densidad de caracol en las zonas y meses durante 2009, densidad
historica por ano en la Reserva Marina Banco Chinchorro

Year               South Zone    Central Zone

             J      A      T       J       A       T
1990                             9000    10700   19700
1992        3100   800    3900   17400   1000    18400
1994        700    2800   3500   14300    200    14500
1997        1800   100    1900   1700      0     1700
2009 Jul.   418     23    541     360      9      369
2009 Nov.   268     96    363     164     39      203
Mean 2009   343     59    452     262     24      286

Year                North Zone    Author

              J      A      T
1990                              Chavez, 1990.
1992        26200   300   26500   De Jesus-Navarrete et al., 2003
1994        1700    300   2000    De Jesus-Navarrete et al., 2003
1997        4800     0    4800    De Jesus-Navarrete et al., 2003
2009 Jul.    353    15     367    This work
2009 Nov.    203    38     241    This work
Mean 2009    278    26     304    This work

J = Juveniles, A = Adults, T = Total./J = Juveniles, A = Adultos,
T = Total.

Descriptive statistics for conch shell length in Banco
Chinchorro Marine Reserve, 2009

Estadistica descriptiva de la longitud de concha de
caracoles en la Reserva Marina Banco Chinchorro, 2009

Month      Zone              Mean     SD

July       South     405    177.75   40.37
          Central    140    156.94   40.37
           North     35     145.77   57.26
November   South     293    201.20   34.99
          Central    224    203.03   26.68
           North     175    145.19   26.68
Total               1.272   179.96   51.97

Fig. 3. Queen conch reproductive activity during dry and cold seasons
in Banco Chinchorro Marine Reserve.

Fig. 3. Actividades reproductivas del caracol, durante las estaciones
de secas y nortes en la Reserva marina Banco Chinchorro.

                             South Zone    Central Zone    North Zone

Copulation                      1             0               0
Spawning                        0             0               0
Aggregations July               9             4               0
Aggregations November           12            8               2
Adults July                     13            8               10
Adults November                 82            41              28

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:De Jesus-Navarrete, Alberto; Valencia-Hernandez, Adriana
Publication:Revista de Biologia Tropical
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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