If you've ever held a beautiful conch shell up to your ear to "hear" the ocean, you might have thought that's where the conch experience begins and ends. In reality, that's only a tiny glimpse into the story of this beloved marine animal. Because although some people know that an animal once inhabited such shells, few are aware of just how complex the conch's development is, not to mention that it's teetering on the brink of existence.
What Is Conch?
Although there are a number of species, the most well-known is undoubtedly the Strombus gigas or queen conch (pronounced "konk.") It's commonly recognized by the trademark large, spiral-shaped shell, which is typically either pale pink or orange in the interior. Inside a living conch shell is a mollusk, or soft-bodied sea snail. Conchs get around by using a foot or horn to drag themselves along the seafloor.
The entire animal is extremely valuable. "The top of the shell is often cut off and used as a horn for signaling," emails Martha Davis, director of Community Conch, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve conch in the Bahamas. "Conch are prized not only for their shell but also for their meat. For centuries they have been used as a subsistence food throughout the Caribbean."
Shell collectors prize them as well for their beauty, adds Dr. Ana Carolina Peralta Brichtova, a professor at Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. "Historically, Strombus gigas has been a highly prized species because indigenous pre-Columbian civilization used their meat for food, and the shells for ornaments, horns and trading."
Conch are native to such picturesque habitats as the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Florida Keys and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Some species also live off the coast of South America and the Mediterranean. Conchs mate when a male and female are in proximity to each other, resulting in an egg mass of roughly 400,000 eggs, according to Davis. "The eggs hatch after about five days and then float on the currents for about three weeks until settling in a favorable habitat," Davis says. The queen conch, when allowed to really hit its stride, can live up to 40 years! Its development is slow, but steady, taking several years:
- Year 1: Conch bury themselves in the sand.
- Year 2: They emerge from the sand, but are extra vulnerable to predators, like turtles and sharks.
- Year 3: They have grown in length and developed a thick shell, which helps keep them safe from predators.
- Years 4 to 5: They achieve sexual maturity and can reproduce.
"This slow rate of maturing makes them vulnerable to fishers who think they are mature because they are big in length," Davis says. "Paper thin lips are a signal that the conch is not sexually mature." A fully mature adult conch sports a large shell festooned with spines. Its shell forms a thick flaring lip. That's the main way to distinguish between juvenile and grown conchs.
Why Conchs Are in Trouble
The conch's status as a tasty delicacy (not to mention its collectible shell) makes it at risk for overfishing, a fact compounded by the fine distinction between the thin-lipped juvenile (which should not be fished) and the thicker-lipped adult.
The main problem, Davis notes, is that harvest criteria are woefully out of date and do not reflect more recent science determining that the lip thickness needs to be 15 millimeters (about a half-inch) before maturity is reached (again, around age 4 or 5). "Most conch are harvested long before that age and so the populations have been declining because they have not had a chance to reproduce," she explains. "If too many conchs are harvested in an area, and the numbers decline, they will not be able to find each other to mate."
Conchs are already depleted in areas where they were once populous, especially in the Florida Keys where harvesting was banned decades ago and yet populations still haven't recovered. In parts of the Caribbean, rules have been put into place to curb overfishing. But it's still a major problem, due to lack of rule enforcement, cross-border poaching and a great demand for conch as an export, according to Davis.
Other problems have to do with the world at large. "The ocean is experiencing loss of habitat due to climate change or chemical contamination, those being additional threats for these organisms," explains Peralta Brichtova. "Strombus gigas is on the CITES list and also the [International Union for Conservation of Nature] is paying special attention to its status." CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora considers conch as "currently not threatened with extinction, may become so without trade controls."
Reversing the Conch Catastrophe
Conchs are vital to the ocean both as herbivorous consumers and prey. "When naturally large populations of conch occur in nursery grounds, they serve to keep seagrass meadows healthy by removing excess algae and organic detritus that can inhibit seagrass growth," Davis says. "Also, small conch provide an important food source for a very long list of invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs and lobsters, as well as dozens of fish species and sea turtles."
As previously mentioned, the Florida Keys suspended its conch harvesting industry in the 1980s and implemented marine preserves in an effort to help the population rebound. So far, it's failed to do the trick. So, experts are turning to strict recommendations to keep the Caribbean from winding up in Florida's shoes. In fact, Davis says that the Bahamas reduced export of conch in 2019, with plans to phase it out completely by 2024.
Throughout much of the Caribbean, however, the advice is inconsistently heeded. "Some countries have not changed out of date harvest rules. Some countries have all the needed rules but there is no enforcement," Davis notes. "The more progressive countries set quotas or limits and stop fishing when that limit is reached; however this is not always successful in stopping the decline of mature conch."
Should You Take Home a Conch Shell?
If you've read this far, we think you know the answer: Leave it alone, unless you are sure there is no animal inside it. People have been jailed in Florida for taking a live conch from the beach or the ocean. "It is illegal to fish for conch in Florida and to bring shells into the U.S. from the Bahamas," says Davis. "[It's] best to eat conch from a live stand where you can see that the conch you are eating has a thick lip and therefore time to reproduce."