Conched Out

The queen conch, long a culinary favorite and a symbol of life in the Keys, is disappearing from local waters

It's not long after lunchtime when Justin Styer and Bob Glazer climb into a longbed, white GMC pickup truck. They drive half a mile to a boat launch and back their twenty-foot fishing vessel into the water. After some blue smoke plumes from the 150-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, they head west along the coast of Marathon Key, veer south through a channel, and motor into the choppy waters of the open ocean.

After 45 minutes of slamming against three-foot waves, Glazer throttles down and they change into wet suits. Glazer, a short and sturdy 42-year-old, unzips a red nylon case perched on a bench in the stern and turns on a Sonotronics radio receiver. It starts to beep. Styer grabs a metal pole with a cone-shape plastic piece at one end. The apparatus, known as a hydrophone, is wired to the receiver. He submerges the cone end and rotates it until the beeping grows louder.

Then he signals to Glazer: "That way." Glazer inches the swaying boat against the waves. The beeps intensify.

Shortly afterward Styer puts down the pole, dons a snorkel and mask, jumps into the water, and disappears. Moments later he resurfaces with a football-size conch. "It's coming out!" Styer exclaims. The mollusk's gleaming wet stalk of a body emerges, and squirms like an octopus's tentacle. "He's kickin'!"

Styer, a lean 26-year-old native of Cape Coral, Florida, with a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of South Florida in Tampa, has been diving most of his life. He helped state researchers in St. Petersburg study bay scallops and ballyhoo before joining Glazer's team. Glazer, who arrived in the Keys in 1986, has a background raising oysters in California and nurturing conch at a private hatchery in Turks and Caicos. "When we first started coming out here, there were hundreds of conchs. Now there are only a few," Glazer laments.

For the past eleven years, Glazer's work at the Florida Marine Research Institute's Marathon and Long Key facilities has been aimed at solving two mysteries: (1) why queen conchs have all but disappeared from the Keys coastal waters; and (2) whether biologists can revive the population with hatchery-raised conch. Despite a thirteen-year ban on queen conch harvesting, the near-shore population has continued to plunge. Near-shore refers to waters inside the Hawk Channel, which parallels the Keys about five miles off the coast. Worse, new data indicate the offshore population has plummeted as well.

Although conch have been a symbol of South Florida's pristine waters for years, the recent pollution of Florida Bay and the surrounding waters has changed things. The queen conch has become less a colorful symbol than an omen of ecological woe. South Florida restaurants have long served only imported conch, and some day even that may not be available. Moreover depletion of the queen conch jeopardizes the entire ecosystem, including the animals that prey on the creatures such as lobsters and puffer fish. "As the conch goes, so goes the environment," Glazer warns.

Conchs and other members of the gastropod class graced the ocean floor long before human beings began to eye them as food, musical instruments, ornaments, political symbols, and ecological bellwethers. Their ancestors are univalve mollusks, which scientists believe appeared about 600 million years ago in the latter Cambrian era. From fossils scientists have dated conchs, including the queen conch (Strombus gigas), to about 65 million years. The large snails ranged from the waters of South Florida to the Caribbean to Bermuda.

When human beings reached the Caribbean basin about a million years ago, islanders cracked open the shells for meat. Members of the pre-Columbian Arawak tribe, which once populated the Greater Antilles, used the shells for hammers, picks, blades, cups, and fishhooks that have turned up in archaeological digs throughout the Caribbean, according to Virginia-based author Dee Carstarphen. They also fashioned shells into jewelry and horns. Christopher Columbus referred to conchs "as large as a calf's head" in the journal of his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1494. In 1539 native warriors beating drums and blowing into conch shells greeted Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men. (Though it's unclear where the meeting took place, historians agree that de Soto most likely first arrived in the Tampa area that year and proceeded to brutalize the Indians.)

The spiral shells of Strombus gigas became exotic treasures from the New World when European explorers delivered them to Europe. Over the next few centuries, a conch-shell trade developed. By the 1800s England was importing tens of thousands per year for the manufacture of porcelain.

As the animal and its shell gained currency, so did the word conch; it came to refer to a type of people as well as a sea creature. British loyalists who fled to the Bahamas during the American Revolution were dubbed conchs, purportedly because they informed their king they would rather eat one of the gastropods than fight in the war.

Bahamians who settled in the Keys during the Nineteenth Century helped establish a South Florida culinary tradition featuring conch chowder, conch salad, conch fritters, cracked conch (marinated, rolled in crackermeal, and fried), and a host of other recipes. All require a chef to tenderize the tough meat by pounding it diligently and repeatedly before cooking.

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