Conched Out

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.

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.

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.

Glazer recalls releasing his first batch of 300 conch into the wild in 1993. "We didn't know what to do. We just put them out in a hard bottom area and then we came back two days later. Slaughterhouse Five," he recounts. None lived. "There was a big massacre. It looked like the killing fields," he continues. "They were out in the open, stupid as sheep when the wolves come." Glazer says the evidence -- crushed shells -- indicated the villains were puffer fish, which squeeze their prey to death.

While the strombus gigas population has declined, Glazer and his fellow researchers have made some fascinating finds. Over lunch recently at an Italian restaurant next to the Long Key lab, Glazer and Gabe Delgado, one of his assistants, discussed some bittersweet news. Styer found #13751, one of the first batch of young queen conchs Glazer raised back in 1996. Glazer, eating a chicken sandwich, says he thinks it is the first time that a hatchery conch has been recovered in the wild as an adult.

"Yeah, I think it is," agrees Delgado, who is 26 years old. He's eating a plate of conch fritters.

Conch #13751 was dead when Styer spied it in the waters off Duck Key. Glazer had released it into the wild in January 1997 with a tiny numbered metal strip wrapped around its shell with a wire. The biologists suspect a December cold snap caused its demise. Styer happened upon the hatchery-raised conch while working on another project. Although the recovery of #13751 had more emotional than scientific value, it proved at least one thing: A conch born into captivity can grow up and survive in the wild, at least for a couple of years.

Conch #13751 is also different from those that Glazer is raising these days. Now he trains the creatures to avoid one of their main predators: the Florida spiny lobster. His classrooms are the three bayside troughs behind the lab. Last year he added sand to the containers, then deposited twenty juvenile conchs there. Next he placed a small cage holding a spiny lobster near the sea snails and put another young conch in the cage. As is nature's nefarious way, the lobster eventually pecked and clawed through the puerile prisoner's still-fragile shell and devoured it. For a week Glazer staged a sacrifice each day. Finally the others wised up and buried themselves under the sand, as wild conchs would do at the spiny one's approach.

The researchers were not surprised, though. "Gastropods are supposedly the most intelligent of all the invertebrates," says Delgado, who hails from Queens, New York, and holds a bachelor of science degree in marine science from the University of Miami. "We analyzed the data statistically -- or sadistically, if you will," Glazer adds.

The analysis yielded two important facts: first, according to Glazer: "They can learn." Second, conchs exposed to the death-by-lobster routine develop thicker shells than conchs that do not witness it. Biologist Bori Olla at the University of Oregon has documented a similar phenomenon with salmon, which grow faster in the presence of their main nemesis, the lingcod. Biologists have concentrated on this aspect of predator-prey relations only in the past decade, Glazer notes.

Hatchery-raised conchs tend to survive at much higher rates when released in autumn and under a full moon. Size also makes a difference: Juveniles that are seven-centimeters in length fare better than shorter or longer ones. Glazer can't explain any of this, but he's not trying to; he simply wants his conch to survive in the wild so that he can study their habits. One day he hopes that biologists can restock the Keys with lab-hatched conch. But before introducing them on a large scale, he wants to make sure they won't be heartier than the native conchs. If that were to happen, the ocean-grown variety could disappear altogether. "We're concerned about hatchery conch taking over the wild conch," Glazer says. "So we're proceeding with caution."

Meanwhile Strombus gigas continues to struggle. From 1992 to 1997 Glazer and his colleagues reported a gradual increase in the total number of queen conch in offshore waters. But this past month Glazer calculated his latest data, from 1998, which show a disturbing 30 percent decline in three main offshore spawning areas. He's mystified by the drop, but suspects poachers might have ravaged one site. In general Glazer thinks the offshore population has stabilized, thanks to the 1985 ban.

Closer to shore, however, the situation continues to worsen, his data indicate. At one research site off Big Pine Key, Glazer estimated 13,000 juveniles (ages one to three) in 1989. Last December the figure was down to thirteen. At another site off Marathon, a conch community dropped from 2300 in 1993 to 24 last year. A third site produced similar results.

In recent weeks Glazer and Styer have again donned their wet suits to look for untagged adult conchs. Their plan is to find a few hundred of them in deep-water sites and move them across the Hawk Channel into shallow waters. They also want to do the reverse: transplant dozens of the animals from shallow areas to deeper waters. This underwater search is the first step in learning why the snails don't spawn in near-shore waters as they once did. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has supplied a $48,000 grant for the endeavor. "We're going to look at their gonads when we move them back and forth," Glazer explains. But there has been an alarming glitch: There are even fewer Strombus gigas in coastal areas than the researchers previously thought. In fact they have not been able to find a large enough sample to carry out the experiment.

The explanation for the continued conch crisis may be polluted Florida Bay water. Or it may be the result of depleted populations in other Caribbean locales. Or both. In the future researchers will try to determine the origin of conch larvae that float into Florida waters. Some believe the tiny creatures ride the Gulf Stream from as far away as Mexico. Glazer's colleague Kevin McCarthy is planning to take DNA samples of the larvae to determine whether it matches genetic material of other adult conchs. One hypothesis holds that the Gulf Stream is carrying fewer larvae into Florida waters because fewer adults are spawning elsewhere in the Caribbean.

"I knew it was bad, but I didn't realize it was as bad as it is," Glazer concludes. "This is the Conch Republic. We don't want it to be the Conch-less Republic.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >