Conched Out

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

Fred Roth, Sr., a New Yorker who owns Shells and Gifts with his son, blames the queen conch depletion on tourists. "I first came here twenty years ago and I went snorkeling down by Sombrero Key (off Marathon) and it was gorgeous," he says. "Then I came back twelve years later. It looked like a bulldozer ran over it." He started colliding with other submerged humans. "When you bump into somebody snorkeling in the Atlantic, something's wrong," he groans.

About ten years ago, Roth purchased 10,000 to 20,000 conch shells at a time, he recounts. They arrived by ship from Honduras. These days Fred Jr., who manages the business, obtains his stock from Darlene's Shells in Palmetto. Most shells come from Caribbean islands like Hispanola.

Bob Glazer and other biologists think it would behoove Caribbean authorities to become more vigilant, lest their conch populations decline like the Conch Republic's. Florida law officers seem to be enforcing the U.S. ban, he says, but penalties should be toughened to further deter poaching. In 1997 Biscayne National Park rangers caught five Hialeah men with 458 queen conchs in their 25-foot boat near Bache Shoal, east of Elliott Key. That was a third of the park's known adult population, ranger David Pharo told the Miami Herald. The poachers also had a fileted (and endangered) sea turtle aboard. U.S. Magistrate Linnea Johnson sentenced the five to 100 hours of community service and barred them from national parks for three years. "That was just a slap on the hand," Glazer grumbles. He likens it to wiping out a herd of breeding elk in Yellowstone National Park.

Any hope of reviving a legal conch harvest in the Florida Keys is likely to hinge on the work of Glazer and his colleagues. One of the researcher's first endeavors in the Keys was to count conch. In 1987 he and biologist Carl Berg, whom Glazer calls a pioneer of Strombus gigas science, began an underwater conch census.

On underwater sleds towed by motorboats, the biologists tabulated queen conch from Virginia Key to Key West on each side of the Hawk Channel annually for five years. After a year of counting, they estimated there were 118,000 adults. By 1991 the number was down to 65,500 adults. The biologists determined that the decline was occurring in the near-shore area.

As they confirmed the population was indeed dropping, they hatched a plan to raise conch in order to study whether it would be feasible to replenish Keys waters with laboratory-raised Strombus gigas. Glazer oversaw the construction of a conch hatchery inside a one-story concrete block building that had served as a Sea World concession stand. These days the place looks more like a disordered laboratory than a hot dog stand. A computer sits on a cluttered desk against one wall. The long counter that workers used to slide food and drinks across is now filled with beakers, buckets, and other lab equipment. Above it are poster-size pictures of a conch larva in the first month of development. "This is actually the second snack bar that I've turned into a hatchery," Glazer says, leaning on the counter. "I like to think of it as evolution," he adds with a sly grin. At the other hatchery, near Santa Cruz, California, Glazer raised spirulina algae.

The biologists first started hatching queen conch at the lab in 1991, in a room filled with cylindrical tanks off the main snack bar area. Two University of Miami researchers had accomplished the feat on a smaller scale eight years earlier. From several hundred thousand eggs, Glazer was eventually able to produce about 1200, or one per two liters of water. He was using untreated water from Florida Bay and suspected pollutants might be keeping more eggs from hatching and surviving. Then a pet fish enthusiast who volunteered at the lab suggested treating the water with ozone, which removes organic matter, pesticides, and heavy metals. Glazer built such a filtering system and his yield increased twentyfold.

In the wild a conch larva is about a millimeter wide and floats on the ocean's surface for 18 to 30 days before undergoing metamorphosis, during which a shell forms around the body, prompting the tiny gastropod to sink to the bottom. For the first year, as its shell grows, the conch lives underneath sand or gravel eating algae. Then it emerges and begins to graze along the bottom like a tiny cow of the sea. By age three it reaches full size: between six and eleven inches long. Queen conchs in Florida waters tend to have a maximum life of 11 years, while their cooler cousins off Bermuda live to be about 40 years old.

For hatchery conchs the same life cycle occurs in a vastly different setting. About once per year, usually in May, Glazer incubates a mass of eggs in a boxy clear-plastic container, then transfers the larvae to one of several large plastic cylinders that take up the small room adjacent to the snack bar. "If we could get 7000 to survive out of each hatch, I'd be as happy as a clam," Glazer says. After metamorphosis the researchers transfer the conchs to troughlike tanks outside. Several times per day, the biologists sprinkle in Koi Platinum Nuggets, an ornamental-fish food that includes soybean meal, corn, alfalfa, spirulina algae, and about 30 other ingredients.

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