“Conch cakes, conch fritters, conch fingers, conch salad, cracked conch, conch wrap, conch in a bag, conch on a pizza…” I was reading the lunch menu, feeling like the shrimp-impassioned Bubba from Forrest Gump.
We were sitting by the harbor of Elbow Cay in the Bahamas preparing for lunch, but I practically had this menu memorized. It’s a menu similar to every other eatery in the Abacos. The tropical edible sea snail better known as conch is a staple in the Bahamian diet. For tourists that travel here, they enjoy the same island flavor.
Lunch dates like these bring back fond memories. Growing up, I remember cruising and diving with the locals in search of the catch of the day. Ten years ago, wild conch littered the ocean floor, and we scoured the sand for exclusively the biggest and healthiest conch we could find.
As a rule in accordance with the Regulation Guidelines for Queen Conch fishing in the USA and Bahamas, “The possession of undersized queen conch less than nine (9) inches total length or less than 3/8 inch lip thickness measured at the thickest point of the lip is PROHIBITED. All species in the fisheries management unit must be landed still attached to the shell.”
But today, much of the ocean floor is bare, even of young conch, and the future of the industry isn’t so bright. Tourism is on the rise, and the conch population is on the fall. “The USA, which prohibits all takes of Queen Conch in FL and adjacent federal waters, is responsible for the consumption of 80% of the world’s internationally traded Queen Conch.” As a result, our country relies heavily on the fishing efforts of other Caribbean countries like the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.
How did this happen?
As with so many other industries, the demand far exceeds the wild supply. A conch community requires a minimum density of 50 adult conch per hectare to maintain sustainability. Research done by Martha Davis and her team at Community Conch indicates that on average, there are now less than 10 per hectare (2014).
Naturally slow growing, easily harvestable and slow to mature, the conch population is ill-equipped to combat overfishing on its own.
If wild conch are so difficult to find – Are there conch farms?
There are a few conch farms scattered throughout the Caribbean but many ‘conchservationists’ and would-be entrepreneurs believe it to be “too expensive and complicated.”
The Caicos Conch Farm in the Turks and Caicos is one of the very few operations sustaining success, after 33+ years of research and development.
What can I do to help?
The beautiful queen conch shells can be seen in nearly every Bahamian tourist guide. Its an iconic staple of this region for a reason, and as tourists, its our responsibility to help where we can.
Make certain to only purchase from restaurants and vendors that abide by harvesting laws. Only consume mature conch with a fully flared lip.
If you are uncertain about the maturity of a conch based on the lip, bring out the measuring tape. A queen conch must be larger than 9″ in length and have a lip more than 3/8″ thick at the thickest point.
If you’re hunting for shells and come across a conch, make certain that no one is home.
The Conchservation Fund is a campaign hosted by Bahamas National Trust which focuses on the protection of queen conch through education, research and stock assessment. You can donate to their efforts here.
Queen conch make their home in the warm, shallow waters of the Caribbean and rely on seagrass and mangroves for reproduction and survival. Treat these places with respect. Look, don’t touch. You area guest in their home.
STATUS: Conch are listed under Appendix II in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so if trade is not tightly controlled.