There are more than 60 different species of conch (pronounced “konk”) in our oceans. The queen conch, Lobatus gigas, is the most common and economically important in the Caribbean. Queen conch dwell in warm, shallow waters from Florida and Bermuda to Brazil and have permeated Caribbean culture and cuisine like few other animals. Most people are familiar with their beautiful pink shells — iconic symbols of the Caribbean and tropical places everywhere — that appear ubiquitously in the form of tourist trinkets, old-time ship horns, building decorations, jewelry and in a prominent place on the Bahamian coat of arms.
When I moved to the Bahamas in 2012, I didn’t know much about the mollusks found within these shells, but they are even more fascinating when you look under the hood.
When you look under a conch’s shell for the first time, it can be difficult to tell what is what. Conch are so different from other animals it’s hard to relate, but they do have eyes, a nose (sort of), a mouth and a single foot. The mouth, which is at the end of a tube, has a tongue that’s used for scraping algae off sea grass blades. A conch’s two eyes are on the ends of long stalks, and just in front of each eye is a little antenna sensory receptor. Amazingly, conch are capable of regenerating a lost eye. Conch create their pink shells using calcium and carbonate ions from seawater. The shells are so tough they can be used to make cement harder. Conch have a single foot they can use to lunge or “hop” along the bottom. They are not exactly quick, which means they’re quite easy for divers and freedivers to catch.
Conch hatch from egg masses after three to five days and begin their life floating as planktonic larvae (called veligers) in the currents of the open ocean before settling on the bottom. Once settled they go through a metamorphosis and bury under the sand, emerging a year later as 1- to 2-inch-long animals. The shell grows in a spiral and increases in size for about four years, after which time the conch reaches its adult size. At this point the conch shell begins to flare outward, creating a thicker and thicker lip. The adult conch will be ready to mate when the lip is about a half inch thick. Females lay 300,000 to 500,000 eggs annually between April and September. Conch can live for more than 20 years if not disturbed.
Conch Life Cycle
Because of the plankton stage of the animal’s life cycle and other factors, farming conch is extremely difficult and expensive. So far only one large-scale commercial conch farm (located in the Turks and Caicos) has been tried, but it was never profitable. It still exists today, mainly as a tourist attraction.
“If you a Bahamian and you see a conch and don’t take it, you crazy,” dive boat captain and former commercial fisherman Sidney Brown said to me after I surfaced from a dive where a large conch was hopping around. There is an obsession with finding and taking conch in the Bahamas.
The latest figures, from 2013, estimate that more than $5 million was generated by conch fisheries annually — a difficult number to arrive at given the prevalence of tiny, independent merchants. Conch is the national food of the Bahamas and is considered a must-try for visitors. It is typically served either raw in a salad with citrus juices, fruits and veggies or fried as fritters or “cracked conch.”
Usually the shells are discarded onto massive piles called middens, but they may also be used to make jewelry, Christmas ornaments and other trinkets. The shells are used extensively — they decorate walkways, they’re built into cement walls, they appear as table ornaments and much more.
I was particularly enamored of a massive brass sculpture of a conch shell I saw on a billionaire’s private property. The individual’s economic status seems not to matter; the conch shell is a symbol of the Bahamas and its clear water, cool breezes and relaxed atmosphere.
As a dive instructor and guide, I am careful to not touch the animals, but conch are one of the few I will pick up, turn over and give guests a peek at. I encourage them to feel the smooth underside of the shell before I place it back in its environment. Conch are beautiful to look at, touch, taste and even hear (there are many popular Bahamian songs written about conch, such as “Conch Ain’t Got No Bone”). I haven’t met anyone, however, who enjoys the raw smell of conch.
Conch in Trouble
Two major queen conch fisheries (Florida and Bermuda) collapsed in the 1970s and despite complete moratoriums have still not recovered. “If the conch fishery in the Bahamas is lost, it’s lost forever,” said Agnessa Lundy, marine science officer at the Bahamas National Trust. In 1992 conch were listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) because nearly all Caribbean nations’ conch were severely overfished in the 1980s. Today only a few countries have significant enough populations to allow for commercial export.
Community Conch, a nonprofit conservation organization, along with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., have taken surveys of middens over many years, and according to their chief scientist, Allan Stoner, Ph.D., “[T]he conch collected by fishers are younger than in decades past; approximately 80 percent of the conch harvested in recent years were too young to reproduce.” Are conch numbers falling as a result? “In the last two years, only the Jumentos Cays had adult densities consistently above the threshold of 100 adults per hectare [the density recommended by the Queen Conch Expert Panel (CFRM, 2012) for a sustainable fishery],” he said. “We found the minimum threshold for mating to be 56 per hectare, and most of the surveys in historically important fishing grounds revealed densities substantially below that — from 5 or 6 per hectare to 20 or 30.
“Conch populations in the Bahamas are overfished,” Stoner said, “and urgently need improved management.”
In 2013 a national campaign began in the Bahamas to conserve conch for future generations. It was and is a joint effort between many conservation organizations, including the Bahamas National Trust, Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF), the Nature Conservancy, Community Conch, Friends of the Environment and others. They all recognize the need to conserve the declining population of queen conch, but the best way to do that seems to be unclear.
Some stakeholders suggest that a closed fishing season during spawning (April–September), similar to that of lobster and Nassau grouper, would help. Others say the key is to establish more marine protected areas (MPAs) in which conch are left alone for their entire life cycles. This seems to hold some water as conch surveys in marine parks revealed much higher densities than surveys outside the parks. It is likely that a combination of both tactics, among other measures, is needed. One thing everyone can agree on is the need for vast improvement in enforcement of existing laws. Today, Bahamian laws include a ban on harvesting while using scuba (which experts say should be expanded to include hookah — a common method for collecting conch and lobster), a ban on collection in MPAs, a limit of six conch per foreign vessel and export quotas.
Perhaps the most important rule states that fishers are to take adult conch only, i.e., conch that have had a chance to reproduce. The law may not go far enough, however, stating only that a conch needs to have a “well-formed lip,” which according to Lundy “does not guarantee the conch is sexually mature — a much better measure is lip thickness, with 15 mm [approximately a half inch] being a good minimum.”
What can we as divers, guides and travelers do? The most direct thing would be to abstain from eating conch altogether, but asking about the size and age of the conch you eat can help. Conservationists on the ground are campaigning for everyone to “Be Sure It’s Mature.” If conch vendors are pressured into sourcing only full-grown conch (as the often-ignored law requires), it would be a small victory in an area in which victories are needed.
I suggest not limiting this standard to conch. If we educate ourselves about the conservation issues of the places we travel to we can make informed choices about what we eat and who we patronize. As the saying goes, “You vote with your wallet every day,” and what we purchase (or don’t) does make a difference.
When I moved to the Bahamas I had no idea conch were in trouble — or how cool they are. I no longer look at conch and think only of food; I am amazed by them and always happy to see them hopping along on the seafloor.
|© Alert Diver — Q1 2017|