[Federal Register Volume 61, Number 241 (Friday, December 13, 1996)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 65481-65484]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 96-31588]



National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 622

[Docket No. 960919266-6336-02; I.D. 082096D]
RIN 0648-AD91

Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic; 
Queen Conch Resources of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; 
Initial Regulations

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Final rule.


SUMMARY: NMFS issues this final rule to implement the Fishery 
Management Plan for Queen Conch Resources of Puerto Rico and the U.S. 
Virgin Islands (FMP). The FMP restricts the taking of queen conch in or 
from the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Puerto Rico and the U.S. 
Virgin Islands (USVI) in order to restore overfished stocks.

EFFECTIVE DATE: January 13, 1997.

ADDRESSES: Requests for copies of the Final Regulatory Flexibility 
Analysis (FRFA) should be sent to the Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 
9721 Executive Center Drive N., St. Petersburg, FL 33702. Requests for 
copies of the FMP, which includes a regulatory impact review (RIR)/
initial regulatory flexibility analysis (IRFA), and a final 
environmental impact statement (FEIS), should be sent to the Caribbean 
Fishery Management Council (Council), 268 Munoz Rivera Avenue, Suite 
1108, San Juan, PR 00918-2577.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Georgia Cranmore, 813-570-5305.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The FMP was prepared by the Council under 
the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and 
Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act).
    Background information on the conch resources of the Caribbean EEZ 
and the rationale for the management measures in the FMP were contained 
in the preamble to the proposed rule (61 FR 50794, September 27, 1996) 
and are not repeated here.
    Public comments were invited on the FMP, the proposed rule, the 
IRFA, and other supporting documents through November 12, 1996. NMFS 
approved the FMP on November 22, 1996.

Comments and Responses

    Comments were received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

[[Page 65482]]

(USFWS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Center for 
Marine Conservation (CMC). USFWS believes the FMP and associated 
documents outline the resource and proposed impacts adequately. The EPA 
concluded that it has no objection to the implementation of the FMP.
    Comment: CMC supports the management measures but is concerned that 
these measures alone may not accomplish the goals of eliminating 
overfishing, ensuring a sustainable fishery, or restoring healthy conch 
populations. CMC urges NMFS to consider a prohibition of scuba harvest, 
the establishment of protected areas, and the development of management 
measures for other species in the management unit.
    Response: NMFS believes that the FMP is a good first step in the 
restoration of queen conch populations in the U.S. Caribbean; however, 
NMFS agrees with CMC that more needs to be done in the very near future 
to further reduce fishing mortality. Although the prohibition on 
harvest by scuba diving was a preferred option, the Council heard 
testimony from conch fishermen during public hearings that most of 
their recent catches are from the EEZ. The Council was unwilling to 
impose such a major burden on the conch fishermen without additional 
information on catch histories and population trends. Puerto Rico is 
considering a number of marine reserves in State waters, and the 
Council is developing an amendment to its coral plan to establish a 
marine reserve off St. John, USVI. Additional protected areas, which 
will benefit conch populations, are expected to be established in the 
U.S. Caribbean as an alternative to more traditional fishery management 
measures. Most organisms sold as curios and used in handicrafts in 
Puerto Rico are imported, primarily from the Philippines. Commercial 
shell collecting does not appear to be a problem here as it is in other 
areas. However, the Council is prepared to address impacts of the 
collection of mollusk shells for the curio market if information 
becomes available indicating the need for action.


    The Regional Administrator, Southeast Region, NMFS, determined that 
the FMP is necessary for the conservation and management of the conch 
resources of the Caribbean Sea and that it is consistent with the 
Magnuson-Stevens Act and other applicable law.
    This action has been determined to be not significant for purposes 
of E.O. 12866.
    The Council prepared an FEIS for this FMP; a notice of availability 
for public comment was published on August 29, 1966 (61 FR 45395). 
According to the FEIS, the restrictions in the FMP would benefit the 
natural environment for the queen conch fishery.
    The Council prepared an IRFA for the proposed rule as required 
under the Regulatory Flexibility Act. The IRFA concluded that the FMP's 
proposed measures would, if approved and implemented, have a 
significant economic effect on a substantial number of small entities. 
Copies of the IRFA are available from the Council (see ADDRESSES).
    Following the public comment, NMFS prepared an FRFA. Copies of the 
FRFA are available from NMFS (see ADDRESSES). The following is a 
summary of the FRFA.
    This final rule is necessary to rebuild the overfished queen conch 
resource in the U.S. EEZ around Puerto Rico and the USVI (Caribbean 
EEZ). Trends in queen conch landings since the early 1980s suggest 
declines in abundance of over 50 percent. This rule is designed to 
rebuild the overfished conch resources in the Caribbean EEZ by 
protecting spawning stocks and reducing fishing effort. This rule (1) 
requires that a Caribbean conch resource in or from the Caribbean EEZ 
be landed in its shell; (2) prohibits possession and sale of queen 
conch below a minimum size; (3) establishes daily recreational and 
commercial harvest limits for queen conch; (4) establishes a 3-month 
closed season regarding the harvest of queen conch; and (5) prohibits 
the use of hookah gear for harvesting queen conch.
    The one substantive public comment received on the proposed rule 
suggested that the Council should propose additional actions to restore 
queen conch stocks, such as a prohibition of the use of scuba for 
harvesting conch. NMFS observes, however, that the Council did consider 
and assess options for additional management actions in its RIR/IRFA 
and in other analyses of the impacts of various management options 
(e.g., the FEIS). The Council concluded that the other options 
considered were likely to increase short-term, adverse economic impacts 
or were unnecessary at this time for achieving the FMP's objectives. In 
approving the FMP, NMFS agreed with the conclusions of the Council's 
analyses of regulatory impacts. Accordingly, this comment did not 
result in changes to the conclusions of the IRFA.
    The FRFA indicates that this rule will result in significant 
economic impacts on a substantial number of small entities. The 
commercial queen conch fishery is composed entirely of small 
businesses. Although the exact number of small businesses is unknown, 
the Council's analyses indicate that at least 30 percent of all queen 
conch fishing trips will be affected by the rule. The requirement to 
land queen conch in the shell, rather than discarding the shell at sea, 
can reduce the ex-vessel value of a day's catch because vessel capacity 
may be exceeded in certain small vessels traditionally used in this 
fishery. The size limit would increase the cost of fishing and reduce 
the amount of conch taken on some trips, at least in the short term. 
However, the Council was unable to quantify these potential changes in 
net benefits because most quantitative data have not been collected for 
this previously unregulated fishery. Assuming fishermen do not 
compensate for the reduction in queen conch harvests through increased 
harvests of other species, estimated reductions in gross revenues per 
trip in Puerto Rico under a commercial trip limit of 150 queen conch 
will average $12, a decline of about 7.5 percent. Average gross 
revenues per trip in the USVI will decline by $5, a decline of less 
than 2 percent. Assuming most U.S. Caribbean commercial queen conch 
fishermen reside in Puerto Rico, the 5 percent criterion for 
significant effects will probably be met. Impacts on small entities 
from the closed season (July-September) are expected to be minimal 
because fishermen will shift effort to other fisheries, such as 
lobsters and snappers, during the summer season. Revenues for USVI 
queen conch fishermen did not decline significantly when a seasonal 
closure went into effect in USVI waters. Prohibiting diving gear that 
provides a continuous air supply from the surface, such as hookah, is 
likely to have only a very minor impact on small entities. Although no 
data exist to document the extent of the use of hookah to take queen 
conch, it is thought to be insignificant relative to scuba and free-
    In trying to minimize significant economic impacts on small 
entities, the Council and NMFS considered numerous management 
alternatives in selecting the preferred management measures regarding 
landing conch whole, size limits, harvest limits, closed season, and 
gear restrictions. In general, the approved FMP measures will create 
unavoidable short-term economic losses for the impacted small business 
entities. However, all these measures were proposed by the Council and 
approved by NMFS because they are considered the most appropriate means 
of rebuilding the overfished queen conch

[[Page 65483]]

resource while maintaining an ongoing commercial fishery. The long-term 
biological and economic benefits of these measures are expected to 
exceed any short-term economic costs to the fishery. The Council 
considered a 5-year moratorium on harvesting queen conch, which would 
have had severe economic impacts. The Council chose, instead, to pursue 
an effort-reduction program with fewer economic impacts than the total 
closure. Regarding the measure requiring landing of whole conch, the 
FRFA indicates that this would allow enforcement personnel to identify 
the conch species and, thus, enforce the minimum size limit for queen 
conch. This provision is expected to reduce fishing effort by limiting 
the amount of queen conch that can be carried aboard a fishing vessel. 
Conch fishermen testified that they would prefer to land conch meat 
only; however, there is no readily available method of distinguishing 
between the meats of queen conch and other conch resources. In 
addition, there is no reliable correlation between the age of a queen 
conch and the weight of its meat. Regarding the size limits, recent 
scientific studies indicate that protecting queen conch less than 9 
inches (22.9 cm) in length and less than \3/8\ inch (9.5 mm) in lip 
width is likely to increase the spawning stock biomass. Lower size 
limits are not expected to achieve this objective although they would 
likely have a reduced impact on small entities. Regarding harvest 
limits, the Council believes that the limit of 150 queen conch per day 
will restrict commercial fishermen to approximately current levels of 
harvest. An alternative considered by the Council was to establish a 
harvest limit of 75 queen conch per commercial fisherman. However, the 
Council decided, based on anticipated adverse economic impacts, to 
maintain current levels of harvest until data show that a reduction in 
the harvest limit is necessary. Regarding the closed season from July 
through September, impacts on small entities are expected to be minimal 
because fishermen will shift effort to other fisheries, such as spiny 
lobsters and reef fish, during this period. Regarding gear 
restrictions, overfishing of nearshore areas has led to an increased 
reliance on the harvest of queen conch in deeper waters by scuba and 
hookah diving. Increased access to deeper waters by these methods could 
result in the elimination of some of the last remaining sources of 
conch recruitment. Although the Council considered a prohibition on 
harvest of queen conch by scuba in the EEZ, potential adverse economic 
impacts of this alternative convinced the Council to recommend only a 
prohibition against devices that provide a continuous air supply from 
the surface, such as hookah. Such devices are not often used in the EEZ 
of the U.S. Caribbean. By allowing extended time on the ocean floor, 
hookah diving significantly increases harvesting time compared to scuba 
and free-diving.
    This action would not revise existing, or establish any new 
reporting, recordkeeping, or other compliance requirements.

List of Subjects in Part 622

    Fisheries, Fishing, Puerto Rico, Reporting and recordkeeping 
requirements, Virgin Islands.

    Dated: December 6, 1996.
Charles Karnella,
Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Fisheries.

    For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR part 622 is amended 
as follows:


    1. The authority citation for part 622 continues to read as 

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.

    2. In Sec. 622.1, table 1, an entry is added in alphabetical order 
to read as follows:

Sec. 622.1  Purpose and scope.

* * * * *

                Table 1.--FMPs Implemented Under Part 622               
            FMP title             fishery management   Geographical area
                  *        *        *        *        *                 
FMP for Queen Conch Resources of  CFMC..............  Caribbean.        
 Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin                                        
                  *        *        *        *        *                 

    3. In Sec. 622.2, the definition for ``Caribbean conch resource'' 
is added in alphabetical order to read as follows:

Sec. 622.2  Definitions and acronyms.

* * * * *
    Caribbean conch resource means one or more of the following 
species, or a part thereof:
    (1) Atlantic triton's trumpet, Charonia variegata.
    (2) Cameo helmet, Cassis madagascarensis.
    (3) Caribbean helmet, Cassis tuberosa.
    (4) Caribbean vase, Vasum muricatum.
    (5) Flame helmet, Cassis flammea.
    (6) Green star shell, Astrea tuber.
    (7) Hawkwing conch, Strombus raninus.
    (8) Milk conch, Strombus costatus.
    (9) Queen conch, Strombus gigus.
    (10) Roostertail conch, Strombus gallus.
    (11) True tulip, Fasciolaria tulipa. 
    (12) West Indian fighting conch, Strombus pugilis.
    (13) Whelk (West Indian top shell), Cittarium pica.
* * * * *
    4. In Sec. 622.33, paragraph (c) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.33  Caribbean EEZ seasonal and/or area closures.

* * * * *
    (c) Queen conch closure. From July 1 through September 30, each 
year, no person may fish for queen conch in the Caribbean EEZ and no 
person may possess on board a fishing vessel a queen conch in or from 
the Caribbean EEZ.
    5. In Sec. 622.37, paragraph (g) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.37  Minimum sizes.

* * * * *
    (g) Caribbean queen conch--9 inches (22.9 cm) in length, that is, 
from the tip of the spire to the distal end of the shell, and \3/8\ 
inch (9.5 mm) in lip width at its widest point. A queen conch with a 
length of at least 9 inches (22.9 cm) or a lip width of at least \3/8\ 
inch (9.5 mm) is not undersized.
    6. In Sec. 622.38, paragraph (g) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.38  Landing fish intact.

* * * * *
    (g) A Caribbean conch resource in or from the Caribbean EEZ must be 
maintained with meat and shell intact.
    7. In Sec. 622.39, paragraph (e) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.39  Bag and possession limits.

* * * * *
    (e) Caribbean queen conch--(1) Applicability. Paragraph (a)(1) of 
this section notwithstanding, the bag limit of paragraph (e)(2) of this 
section does not apply to a fisherman who has a valid commercial 
fishing license issued by Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. See 
Sec. 622.44 for the commercial daily trip limit.

[[Page 65484]]

    (2) Bag limit. The bag limit for queen conch in or from the 
Caribbean EEZ is 3 per person or, if more than 4 persons are aboard, 12 
per boat.
    8. In Sec. 622.41, paragraph (f) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.41  Species specific limitations.

* * * * *
    (f) Caribbean queen conch. In the Caribbean EEZ, no person may 
harvest queen conch by diving while using a device that provides a 
continuous air supply from the surface.
    9. In Sec. 622.44, paragraph (f) is added to read as follows:

Sec. 622.44  Commercial trip limits.

* * * * *
    (f) Caribbean queen conch. A person who fishes in the Caribbean EEZ 
and is not subject to the bag limit may not possess in or from the 
Caribbean EEZ more than 150 queen conch per day.

[FR Doc. 96-31588 Filed 12-12-96; 8:45 am]