The Mighty Conch

If there is one food that comes close to defining the Bahamian cuisine in the mind of most travelers, it it the Queen conch. Conch fritters, “Cracked” (i.e., fried) conch, Conch bisque, Conch salad.

The conch is a very large marine snail that has been a favorite food of people in the islands since long before Columbus arrived. Being snails, they are quite easy to catch since they can not run away. They live on sandy and grassy bottoms from the tide line on down.

The shell is extremely robust. There are very few predators in the ocean that can penetrate the armor of an adult conch. However, given some simple tools, the shell is easily opened by humans. A quick hit with a hammer (or rock!) in the right place opens a hole that a knife can reach in and cut the attachment of the animal to its shell. The shell is then discarded.

Conch shells and cleaning table on West Plana Cay.

In some places, people have been cleaning conch in the same place for a very long time, and the piles of discarded shells pile up. The relative ages of the shells can be seen by the color; pink and brown on the fresh ones, gray and white on the old ones.

How long does an empty conch shell last? Forever. Well, almost. The Bahamas are composed of fossilized coral reefs that grow during periods of high sea level, and then wear down when sea level is lower. Parts of the islands are made of nothing except fossilized conch shells. I am imagining a clever geologist has coined a word for this kind of rock to make his academic thesis more impressive.

Fossil conch shells embedded in rock.

As these rocks erode, the shells are once again released on the beach. Other than color, these million year old shells are basically are indistinguishable from the current crop.

Across many places in the Caribbean and southeastern USA the Queen conch has been fished to near extinction. Even in the Bahamas near any settlement they can be very hard to find, but the Bahamas is fortunate to have a large reservoir of very remote places where conch live and reproduce almost unmolested.

People who only visit the population centers of the Bahamas might suspect that the conch is a creature that naturally not very common. That would not be at all true. On one island we visited recently conch were so common that on any beach you could have picked up conch that had been stranded by the falling tide. Enough for a meal without getting your feet wet.

In water near shore they were literally crowded together.

More than a dozen live conch within an arm’s reach in water a foot deep.

Hopefully, with careful management, the Bahamas can keep these remote places where conch are common as a source for a sustainable fishery in the long run.

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2 Responses to The Mighty Conch

  1. Duane Siegfried says:

    Much of Florida is formed from: “Coquina is a sedimentary rock composed almost entirely of sand-size fossil debris. The fossils are usually mollusk or gastropod shells and shell fragments.”


    • Bill Kinney says:

      Thanks Duane!

      I knew of the term “coquina” as the bedrock of Florida, but didn’t realize it had that specific a technical definition. I haven’t yet posed a question that my readers haven’t come through on!



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