Conch (pronounced ‘konk’) is a type of edible marine snail popular throughout the Caribbean and especially in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Conch tastes similar to clams, although it is a lot more ‘rubbery’ with a more defined texture.
Conch is an important symbol of the Turks and Caicos, being one of three symbols on our flag (the other two being a spiny lobster and a Turk's Head cactus).
History of the animal
The Queen Conch, or strombus giga, is found naturally in the Atlantic, from the coast of Brazil to Florida. An endangered animal, it's prohibited to fish/gather conch in the United States. Queen Conch are protected under the CITES Treaty, and as such exporting the animal (or the shell) requires a permit.
In the early 1990s, 16 Caribbean countries exported conch to the United States. Today, only 3 countries export conch to the United States (the Turks and Caicos is one).
Conch is becoming endangered due to overfishing. The
Caicos Conch Farm on Providenciales is the world’s only conch farm (open for visitors), which used to supply conch for the entire country and also for export.
A helmet conch and queen conch shell. Queen conchs are the species which are edible and used in local dishes.
Conch Life Cycle
Conchs start as an egg in an ‘egg mass’, a group of individual strands which are woven together with sand to protect the individual delicate eggs. Each egg mass has approximately 500,000 eggs.
5 days after hatching, in the larva phase, conchs are about .5 mm (1/50”), and have yet to undergo the metamorphosis stage. This metamorphosis phase occurs around day 18, which by then they are .8 mm (1/32”). Day 19, after they have undergone metamorphosis and are now in the post-larva stage, conchs are usually about 1 mm (1/24”) in size.
For the first year, whilst they are juveniles (60-180mm, 2½-7”), it can be difficult for them to survive. The conchs are small enough to simply be eaten whole by octopus and similar predators. Other natural predators are lobster, stings rays, tulip shells, crabs, turtles and porcupine fish.
Conchs take 3-4 years to mature and become suitable for consumption. They are scavengers, which mean they scour the sea floor for food, eating mostly carrion and other scraps.
Conchs have separate sexes and mate approximately 9 times a year, between March and October. Female conchs lay an egg mass (of 500,000 eggs). In the wild, only one egg out of 500,000 in the egg mass usually matures into an adult.
A mature Queen Conch.
Shells and their Uses
Queen Conchs produce beautiful shells. Unfortunately, to remove the animal from the shell fishermen routinely crack the top of the shell to break the seal the animal creates and thus be able to pull it from the shell. This ultimately damages the aesthetic value of the shell.
Early settlers to the Turks and Caicos would grind and burn the shells to create plaster and stucco for their walls. More recently, a local entrepreneur uses broken conch shells to create bathroom and kitchen countertops.
Due to the extremely hard nature of the shells, broken shells have been used to line the tops of walls to prevent people climbing over, much like what is done with broken glass.
Conch pearls are rare, but do occur. They form in much the same way as a clam pearl.
It is illegal to export conch shells from the Turks and Caicos, and also illegal to import them into many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom. Interestingly, conch shells are the 9th most confiscated item by UK Customs and Border Protection.
A juvenile conch in its natural habitat on the ocean floor.
Conch is an integral part of local cuisine in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The two most popular dishes, conch fritters and conch salad, are a relatively recent culinary event, but have nonetheless become a staple of local cuisine. A few local restaurants, including Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills, let you snorkel and catch your own conch. They’ll then clean, prepare and cook it for your lunch or dinner.
Conch Festival is held annually on Providenciales, which involves a lot of conch cuisine. It’s a full day event that’s perfect for families and it takes place right on the beach in the Blue Hills area.