Conched Out

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

As conch cuisine proliferated, so did human "conchs": The population of the Keys grew steadily and residents took on the nickname. When northerners began to flock to South Florida early this century, shops piled up the shells and sold them as souvenirs. A local conch harvesting industry that supplied food and shells thrived for decades. Scientists say the population in the Keys began to decline in the mid-1960s. In 1976 the government required restaurants and gift shops along the island chain to look elsewhere for the big snails. That year the United States banned commercial harvesting of queen conchs. But the ban was incomplete: Individuals were allowed to collect them for personal use.

In 1982 Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow plunged Strombus gigas into stormy political waters. Federal authorities had set up a roadblock on Key Largo as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants. To protest the twenty-mile traffic jam and costly disruption of the area's tourist economy, Wardlow challenged the move in federal court. When a Miami judge denied his suit, Wardlow founded the Conch Republic and announced his intention to secede from the United States. The government suspended its effort after a week of distressing international publicity. The Keys remain part of the United States.

But the island nation's secretary general, Peter Anderson, contends the Keys are sovereign. The reason: Washington never responded to the announcement. Contacted by New Times, Anderson outlined the Conch Republic's foreign policy: "The mitigation of world tension through the exercise of humor. As the world's first fifth-world country, we exist as a state of mind and aspire only to bring more warmth, humor, and respect to a planet in need of all three."

The decimation of the Keys' quintessential marine creature was no joke. By 1985 numbers of queen conch in the shallow waters of the Keys had dwindled so low from recreational harvesting that Florida authorities made the commercial moratorium a total ban. A year later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended the prohibition nationwide. (Queen conch are also found off the Texas coast.) Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico also imposed bans.

Harvesting continued elsewhere in the Caribbean, where conch are naturally much more abundant owing to warmer waters. In 1990 the region exported $40 million worth of Strombus gigas. Today the conch catch brings $60 to $75 million per year to the area, according to Miguel Rolon, executive director of the 38-nation Caribbean Fisheries Management Council in Puerto Rico. "For the island nations, that's important," he stresses. After fish and lobster, queen conch is the region's biggest seafood export, he adds.

The San Pedro Bank off the south coast of Jamaica is the most abundant source of the sea snails, followed by Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. Those populations are the main sources of conch meat for large distributors such as Ocean World Fisheries and Empire Seafood, which have operations in Miami. A 1994 study indicated that conch were overfished in coastal areas throughout the Caribbean. This month, after a meeting in Belize, biologists will conduct a regionwide effort to estimate Strombus gigas numbers in order to devise management strategies. Besides the United States and Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico have also banned conch fishing in some areas.

In Miami-Dade County suppliers sell about 20,000 pounds of conch per week to restaurants, estimates Sebastien Francois, who has worked in the seafood industry for twenty years. He now owns Sebastien and Marie Seafood in Miami. He buys meat from the big distributors and then sells it to restaurants from Miami Beach to Little Rock.

Caribbean nations also provide the shells, which are as lucrative as the meat. Gift shops in the Keys are loaded up with the shiny pink and peach conch casks, though the biggest suppliers are far from the Conch Republic. Shell World in Orlando has a million in stock (not all conch), according to its Website. Shell Factory in Fort Myers is another major supplier. Darlene's Shells, located in Palmetto, Florida, sells conch shells to smaller stores from Key West to New Jersey.

One of those shops, Shells and Gifts in Marathon, features a life-size stuffed gorilla named Lulu standing outside next to a white conch the size of a small cow. Inside, at the end of an aisle, is a display box containing about 30 queen conch shells. Each is six- to seven-inches long. People shell out $7.00 for them and $1.75 for smaller ones. The store peddles about 10,000 per year, which translates into a $20,000 profit, according to owner Fred Roth, Jr. After T-shirts, conch shells are the hottest item.

"I sell a lot of them to Europeans," says Betty Callion, who won't reveal her age but says she moved to the Keys 28 years ago from Rockaway, New York. Callion is conversant about conch. In the tradition of Caribbean peoples, she and her husband Jack stow a conch shell with the tip cut off in their bonefish skiff. She insists it qualifies as an emergency whistle, which every boater must have onboard according to state law. "The marine patrol hates it. They're always trying to get you on a technicality. But they have to allow it." She has thought about the difficulties of being a conch. For one thing, if a human gets fat, she can go out and get bigger clothes. A conch has to fit into its shell, which stops expanding after three years, when the animal reaches adulthood. "When we get older, we get bigger. As they get older, they have to regulate their body size," she says.

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