Treasures of the Tropical Reef: the Remarkable Conch


Nothings says “tropical island” or Caribbean sea like a gorgeously pink conch shell. These wonders of nature always bring a smile to my face, and conjure up memories of warm salty breezes and the sight of aqua-blue ocean. But what exactly is a conch? How do you pronounce the word? And why do people love harvesting them so much?

(A conch in Turks and Caicos. Photo by Kim Carpenter, Flickr.)

Inside a conch shell you’ll find the actual conch itself. A conch is a “gastropod mollusk,” a soft-bodied animal that can typically live between 20 and 30 years. They’re born from eggs, first floating around and finally settling down to becoming a thing we’d recognize as a conch. Their shells grow, and in the case of the Queen Conch species, continue to become thicker over its lifetime. The conch animal itself is not especially attractive, as least from a human point of view. (I’m sure conchs look perfectly beautiful to other conchs!)

(Florida Crown Conch rolling over. Photo by Kathy, Flickr.)

The inside of a conch shell forms a spiral, and the inner lip runs the gamut from a deep pink color to a lighter pink or even an orange color. You can find conchs in coral reefs, among seagrasses, and on the sandy ocean bottom. My favorite conch of all, the Queen Conch, mainly inhabits the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, although it can be found as far south as Brazil and further north up to Bermuda.

(Conch off San Salvador island in the Bahamas. Photo by James St. John, Flickr.)

In the English-speaking Caribbean and in Florida, the word conch is pronounced CONK. No, I’m not kidding. Pronounce the final “ch” and locals will either gently correct you or laugh with amusement. In Key West, the nickname for local residents is conch. And when Key West briefly seceded from the United States in 1982, they named their territory “the Conch Republic.” Today you’ll still see many Conch Republic flags flapping in town, although Key West was quickly brought back into the American fold after their secession.

(The Conch Republic flag. Photo by Sam Howzit, Flickr.)

Human beings in tropical regions have used conchs for various purposes, including using the shell as a horn or trumpet. Of course, many people eat conch meat and in places like the Turks and Caicos islands, conch is an important staple in the local diet.

(Conch fritters. Photo by Krista, Flickr.)

You can make fried conch fritters, which contain small pieces of conch mixed in with a batter. In conch salad, the conch is marinated (and cooked) by lemon and/or lime juice, like a Peruvian ceviche. Conch chowder can also be very tasty, not to mention cracked conch, which is tenderized conch that is battered and fried. Although conch can taste delicious, if you don’t know how to prepare it, the meat can feel like chunks of rubber in your mouth!

Unfortunately, in some areas species like the Queen Conch have been almost loved to death. Not only do we humans like to eat them, we also love their pretty shells, and this has resulted in a severe decrease in their number, particularly off Florida shores. In fact, it’s now illegal to take any Queen Conch from Floridian waters. (The conch on the menu in Key West? Not taken from local waters.) NOAA Fisheries reports that in some Caribbean countries, like Jamaica and Turks and Caicos, conch harvesting is monitored and well-regulated, while among other islands, the conch population may be in danger. Particularly when folks take immature conchs which haven’t had a chance to reproduce – the number of conchs may slide into serious decline.

One place I want to visit? The Caicos Conch Farm in Providenciales in Turks and Caicos. Here they’ve discovered methods of farming conchs so that wild conch aren’t overfished. I’d like to see their operation! On our recent trip to Grenada, I was astonished by the number of conch shells that washed up on beaches. Here, conch is called "lambi" or "lambie" (as it is in Martinique and Guadeloupe as well). At our hotel we discovered this conch in the photo below that just rolled in on the waters. It didn’t have an animal inside, and was covered with algae. But the shell struck me as beautiful all the same.

(A conch on the shore in Grenada. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

Have you ever tried conch? Or held a conch shell in your hands? Hope you’ll share if you have any conch pictures. Have a great day, fellow Island Runaways!

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