Conch in Turks and Caicos: From Fashion to Food
In Turks and Caicos, the conch business is booming. Featured as one of the symbols on the Turks flag, with its own dedicated festival, it is even the inspiration behind the popular local fashion label Konk.
Wandering the art galleries and boutique shops, conch shells are featured in many shapes and forms. Moulded into rings, necklaces, napkin holders or salad bowls; taking upcycling to new extremes.
A Culinary Staple in Every Kitchen
Conch (pronounced Konk) is found in virtually all shallow water along the entire island chain, and it’s what the shell contains that forms the prize. The tough, meaty delicacy inside the flamingo-pink shells, is featured in every island kitchen, from hole-in-the-wall takeaways to boutique-chic hotels.
Pacific Rim, Ocean Escargot, Island Princess and Queen Conch – you’d be forgiven for believing these conch variations were the names of ocean liners. But each variety is distinct by its shape, size, and beautifully unique markings.
The Art of Cooking Conch
Be it steamed, stewed, grilled or cracked – chefs compete to conjure quirky culinary creations to give their menus a fresh new edge and to have the chance of being crowned Best in Show at the annual food festival. From crispy conch wontons drizzled in hoisin sauce, to spicy conch pizzas, you’ll never tire of indulging in their next experiment.
But of all the places to sample conch and the myriad variations on offer, the original is still the best. Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills serves conch in its freshest form – conch salad. While slugging their infamous rum punch, observe as lunch is picked from a pile of live conch on the sea floor, just 30ft in front of the pastel-coloured picnic benches, right on the beach. The meat is then knocked out of its thick shell using a hammer and chisel (struck on a precise part of the shell) before being heavily tenderised. Simple yet delicious, the conch is served diced or thinly sliced, along with tomatoes, onion, pepper and a chilli. The secret to making it great, though, is a very healthy dose of lime juice to help ‘cook’ it just right.
The Economic Importance of Conch
For over 1,000 years the Queen Conch (Strombus Gigas) has been a staple diet in the Turks, but in more recent times it’s been a source of the country’s few export commodities. In the 1990s, 16 Caribbean countries exported to the USA (they had depleted their own conch population by then). Today, Turks and Caicos is one of only three countries still exporting conch, netting the country US$3.5 million annually.
A few years ago, Conch Tours was established to take inquisitive tourists on a trail of the island’s most notorious conch hot-spots. Including a visit to the Caicos Conch Farm – ‘The world’s only sea farm that raises Queens fit for a King’. They harvest conch from juvenile to adult, along with other fish species, to try and encourage sustainability.
Sustainability and Conservation Concerns
In 2007 a study by Karen Lockhart* found: “Its population [conch] is considered stable, mainly because the TCI government has adopted a precautionary approach to fisheries management.”
Unfortunately, more recent studies have recorded that the conch population isn’t as healthy as it was a decade ago. Kathleen Wood (2014)* stated that “Queen Conch in TCI is at a critical juncture” concluding that “the decline in stocks in TCI is attributable to both manmade and natural variables.” The natural variables include two destructive hurricanes in a short timeframe hitting the country in 2008 (Hannah and Ike). One of the theories accounting for the manmade variables was dredging to form a new mega-yacht marina that was completed in the winter of 2013.
Internationally, conch is considered an endangered species under the CITES. Thankfully, the Turks government are aware of this and are monitoring the situation, implementing these legal protections:
• Closed season July 15 – Oct 15 (open locally but with a ban on exporting)
• Ban on any shell under 7in or meat under 8oz
• Ban on artificial breathing to aide catch (e.g. scuba)
• An export quota
The DECR (Department of Environment & Coastal Resources) in TCI agreed that the hurricanes played a substantial part in conch decline, and assured me that additional measures have been put in place to sustain the conch population. These include “a widespread network of marine protected areas, specifically designed to protect a conch and lobster nursery” as well as increasing the monitoring of landing, and employing more officers to carry out this work.
They concluded by saying “undoubtedly, the population is rebuilding. This can be seen by the fact that the catch per unit effort is increasing. There is some way to go, but provided we can maintain good management measurements, the future is more optimistic than some may portray.”
Let’s hope their continued efforts will ensure conch remains on the menu for another 1000 years to come.