When visiting the Bahamas, there are at least two things that tourists look forward to: up close and personal dolphin encounters and spotting a glistening conch shell beneath the pristine blue ocean waters. Conch shells are wonderful souvenirs, and the meat inside is tasty. Residents and visitors alike consider conch a staple food while on the islands and a prized delicacy when away. From conch chowder, to cracked conch, to colorful conch salad, this iconic pink-hued symbol of the Bahamas is as delicious as it is beautiful. That is precisely the problem: due to overharvesting and poaching, populations of this beloved mollusk are in serious decline.
The Bahamas National Conchservation Campaign aims to educate the public about proper conch-harvesting protocol and about the fact that the very survival of this species could be in jeopardy if peoples’ habits and government regulations do not change.
A Closer Look at the Queen Conch
One reason why the conch is in danger is that many people don’t know what constitutes a “mature” conch that legally can be harvested. A conch cannot reproduce until it reaches maturity at about 6 years old. When that happens, it releases an egg sack filled with hundreds of thousands of eggs. Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of those eggs reach maturity (about one in 500,000 by one estimate.) Once it has reached maturity, a conch can reproduce about nine times a year.
Many conchs don’t live to see maturity and are unable to help replenish their species. Currently, it’s legal to harvest a conch that has a well-formed flared lip. The organization Community Conch, though, disputes that that is the accurate standard for maturity. Instead, the group’s studies indicate that a conch reaches maturity only after its lip becomes about 15-mm thick (about the thickness of a penny.) If that is the case, many law-abiding Bahamians and visitors unknowingly have been contributing to the species decline by harvesting immature conchs.
Some unscrupulous individuals seem not to care at all about the maturity level of the conchs that they harvest – or about the law. This is clear in an art exhibit by local artist Antonius Roberts. Roberts collected about 200 conch shells from discard piles across New Providence. Even an untrained eye can see that the lips on a startling number of the shells – more than half – are less than 15-mm wide. In many cases, the shells obviously did not come from mature individuals. Environmentalists hope that between dolphin encounters and walks on the beach, tourists will take a moment to view this art exhibit and the Blue Lagoon Island in person.
Grassroots Efforts Offer Hope for the Species
Conch enthusiasts everywhere hope that this important environmental initiative will gain momentum, educate people, and change Bahamians’ attitudes about the ingredient in many of their most prized dishes. With a bit of restraint and more government oversight, the Queen Conch can be saved and continue to delight future generations with its beauty and cooking versatility.