A federal judge ruled yesterday in a case argued by Friends of Animals that the National Marine Fisheries Service illegally denied Endangered Species Act protections for the imperiled queen conch, a distinctive large mollusk known for its flared spiral shell with blunt spikes and pink interior. The ruling overturns the NMFS’ Nov. 5, 2014 decision not to list the conch, a decision the advocacy groups said was based on deeply flawed analysis and ignored the agency’s own experts.

The judge’s ruling moves the queen conch back into queue for full and fair consideration under the Endangered Species Act.

Photo by Mike Theiss, National Geographic

WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals sued the NMFS in July of 2016 over the agency’s refusal to protect the queen conch based on threats to the species from pollution, habitat degradation and human consumption.

“If only Floridians and other people would admire the queen conch for its beauty and role in the ecosystem rather than for how it tastes as a fritter,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “It’s infuriating that people feel entitled to eat them to extinction.”

“Friends of Animals is thrilled that the court vacated the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision not to list the queen conch,” said Jenni Best, assistant legal director for FOA’s Wildlife Law Program. “As more species are headed toward extinction, it is critical that people continue to fight for their protection, hold the government accountable for its duties under the Endangered Species Act and defeat efforts to chip away at the law. This is a perfect example of how Friends of Animals and WildEarth Guardians have done just that, and we hope that this will lead to lasting protection for the queen conch.”

WildEarth Guardians submitted a petition to list the conch on March 1, 2012. The NMFS’ decision to not list the queen conch failed to recognize the continuing impacts of heavy human exploitation and the fact that 85 percent of conch populations may already be too small to successfully reproduce.

“We destroyed our own conch fisheries in Florida, and now the U.S. demand for conch is depleting fisheries in other countries,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “We need to take responsibility for reining in this demand and get conch populations on the road to recovery.”

The queen conch occurs throughout the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, from Bermuda and Florida in the northern extent of its range, to Brazil in the south. Conch are prized for their meat and their large, beautiful shells, and are commercially fished in approximately 30 countries. The U.S. is the largest importer of queen conch, importing approximately 78% of the queen conch meat in international trade (about 2,000 to 2,500 tons annually).

Research conducted since the species was petitioned also indicates that conch populations throughout the Caribbean are fragmented, indicating that they need to be managed as separate populations, something the NMFS declined to do in their finding on the petition.

Queen conch live primarily in seagrass beds, which are important ecosystems that provide food, shelter and nursery grounds to myriad fish and invertebrate species. Some researchers have compared seagrass beds to tropical rainforests based on their high productivity, structural complexity and biodiversity. Queen conch play a vital role in shaping these communities, principally by consuming seagrass detritus (dead and decomposing seagrass). The loss or substantial decrease of queen conch may cause significant, harmful changes in the ecosystem.

An estimated 50-80% of all life on Earth is found in the oceans. More than half of marine species may be at risk of extinction by 2100 without significant conservation efforts. Despite this grave situation, the U.S. largely fails to protect marine species under the ESA. Of the more than 2,000 species protected under the Act, only about 6% are marine species.

Protection under the ESA should be an effective safety net for imperiled species, but under the current administration, commercial interests are considered above the protection of marine life.

More than 99% of plants and animals protected by the law exist today. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006 if not for ESA protections. Listing species with global distributions can protect them from trade and help focus U.S. resources toward enforcement of international regulations and recovery of the species.