Although available as fritters, chowder and salad on a number of local menus, the conch isnít harvested in state or federal waters. There, the population of queen conchs – with their marvelous pink-lipped, I-can-hear-the-ocean shells – is depleted, and Florida considers the species, Strombus gigas, protected.
Thatís the origin of the conch sold by Pride of the Sea seafood market in Bunnell. “I´ve never seen it fresh,” owner Gwedolyn Gay said recently.
In that region, conch meat continues to be an important source of protein. “People who are from the Caribbean eat it more than anybody,” Gay said.
In our own state, “Indians who lived in south Florida 3,000 years ago ate conch meat and used the shells to make cooking utensils and pots, as well as necklaces, pendants, earrings, and buttons,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission´s Marine Research Institute.
Currently, many researchers recognize the enduring need to feed the human population as a powerful reason to rebuild and sustain the population of queen conchs. The mollusks have been part of the human diet for centuries, the institute says.
“The need has never been greater for new technologies that will produce seafood for a hungry world,” says a purpose statement from the unrelated Mote Marine Laboratory, based in Sarasota. The laboratory operates the United States´ best known queen conch farming facility, the Conch Baby Farm in Key West.
“Mote´s aquaculture center is ready for the challenge and will do its part,” the statement continues.
Mote Marine Laboratory has no intention of using its Conch Baby Farm, opened in November 2003, to raise the conchs to table-ready maturity, though. The farm´s long-term mission is to help to restock the waters surrounding the Keys, and, in the short term, to raise money for its programs through outreach, education and “other creative projects,” said Scott Feen, the farm´s new manager.
“Conch are being fished to extinction,” he said by telephone recently from the Key West facility. “There are only 30,000 left in the entire Keys chain.”
One solution, for people who wish to eat and restaurateurs who want to continue serving conch, is farmed conch from a facility in the Turks and Caicos chain, a series of low-lying islands that curve between the Bahamas and Haiti. Sources say the Caicos Conch Farm and Inland Sea Center in Providenciales produces about 750,000 conchs annually.
Farmed conch has gotten rave reviews in The New York Times and other publications. Critics say it´s sweet, tender and succulent.
One restaurant in Key West serves this fresh, farmed conch meat, A&B Lobster House, said Feen, who moved from San Francisco to assume his post about a month ago. He intends to give it a try as soon as possible, but, in the meantime, sees no merit to the frozen version: “It´s the equivalent of a deep-fried clam.”
Generally, the meat is tough and must be ground, pounded, or marinated in lemon or lime juice to be made tender (an example of the technique is in the ceviche-style recipe below), says the Marine Research Institute.
In modern-day Florida, conchs had been harvested mainly as curios – they still decorate many an English garden – until a 1965 law mandated that fishermen use the meat as well as the shell.
Before diving became the preferred harvesting method, fishermen in small dinghies used glass-bottomed buckets to scan the bottom for conchs and retrieved the animals with long, hooked poles.
“About one-fifth to one-third of the weight of an adult conch is edible meat,” says the institute, which has its own hatchery facilities and scientists working on restocking the wild queen conch fisheries.
Over the years, fishermen have taken live conchs to port and cleaned them by knocking a hole between the third and fourth whorl of the shell and inserting a knife to separate the animal from the shell. Feen, who also is a commercial boat captain, said he recently witnessed this conch-shucking scene in the Bahamas. “I have digital images of unbelievable amounts of queen conch just being extracted from the ocean,” he said. “They just sit there and crack it and toss the shell over their shoulder into the water.”
He has received a quick education on the plight of the queen conch, and wants to spread the knowledge through the Conch Baby Farm. It already is open to the public for limited hours and features not only conch culturing, but also nurse sharks, farm-raised snook and saltwater corals. A grand opening is planned for sometime in August.
“Come on down and pet a conch,” he said.
Conch Baby Farm
WHAT: A research and aquarium facility operated by the Mote Marine Laboratory.
WHERE: Next to the Conch Republic Seafood Co. restaurant at 631 Greene St., Key West.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
CONTACT: (305) 296-3551, email@example.com.
The Other Conch Meat
Floridians and visitors may believe that all menu items listed as conch (which really means “shell” in Greek) contain the one most familiar to them. But there are some differences between queen conch and “scungilli”:
Like a queen conch, it´s also a mollusk gastropod, but it´s technically a whelk. Italian-Americans, especially in New England, call it scungilli and use it in seafood salads. (Above, scungilli salad is prepared by Rob Scuteri, owner of Loveceís Italian Restaurant in Ormond-by-the-Sea).
Conchs are herbivorous and live in tropical seas; carnivorous whelks live in much colder waters.
Whelks are generally removed from their shells and sold already steamed and ready to eat. They may be shipped fresh, canned or frozen.
Whelk (Busycon carica, commonly referred to as the Bulot shell) also is an important ingredient in the Italian dish of scungilli marinara. “I normally cook mine in garlic and oil or marinara and serve it over linguine, or serve it in something called frutti di mare,” said Scuteri.
Whelk is a darker meat with stronger flavor, perhaps less “sweet” than queen conch. Scuteri finds the taste of fresh Bahamian queen conch far superior. “It´s a taste shocker for people who know regular scungilli,” he said.
Did You Know?
These fast facts about the queen conch:
The soft-bodied mollusk, a long-lived marine snail, grows to about 12 inches long and may weigh five pounds.
It advances about half its body length with each “leap” on its claw-tipped foot, called an operculum.
Tagging studies show the queen conch (pronounced konk) may travel up to 1 mile in a two-month period and more than 700 yards in a week.
In Bermuda´s cooler waters, a queen conch may live to be 40 years old, but, in Florida (from the Keys to St. Lucie Inlet on the East Coast), its life span is 7 to 15 years.
Queen conchs were once so plentiful that natives of the Florida Keys were known as “conchs,” a nickname still used today.
SOURCE: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Talk About It
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