REPORT #8 1998
ABOUT THE CONCH POPULATION


Produced by the Belize Development Trust
REPORT # 8 April 4th. 1998

CONCHS & the Belizean Barrier Reef studies.

Conchs need a lot of oxygen in the water to thrive. That is why they are mostly found near the breaking surf of the barrier reef. The conch business in Florida was banned in 1985. All the conchs come from other countries for the restaurant trade. Places like Belize, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas.

A marine biologist by the surname of Glazer started doing research into the conch along the Florida Keys. After 11 years, with a census of conchs, done by dragging snorkelers behind a boat on lines counting conchs, the newest report shows that in some areas of the Florida Keys, conchs are starting to come back. In some areas they are not.

One of the observations found, that conchs in near shore waters are not coming back and with some research it has been found that something has altered their ability to reproduce. The organs have been altered. There has also been a massive buildup of people in the Florida Keys and destruction of the mangroves.

Glazer is guessing, but thinks it has to do with water quality. Experiments have shown that you can keep young conchs alive more easily if you increase the oxygen content in tanks through filters and pumps.

Conclusions are that for lab hatched conchs to survive in the wild, they have to be dropped in oxygen rich water ( turbulent ), they need to be about three inches in length and should be dropped along a reef edge during a fall full moon. That is when the biggest predators, lobsters and loggerhead turtles are farthest away. Studies show such seedings have a 50% survival rate.

Conchs like warm clear water and a sandy bottom. They hide when young and small in turtle grass bottom in the tropical reef areas of the Bahama, Turks and Caicos and Belize. Also the Florida Keys and other spotty reef areas around the Caribbean.

They are an intelligent creature. Have two eyes that watch the world on long stems and can pull themselves into their shell to hide. Predators are sea turtles and man. They crawl by sticking out a long shell like claw and pullng themselves forward. I'm not sure what they eat, but it is small minute creatures in the coral sand bottom. They are bottom feeders. They travel in schools. When they are hunted by man and fishermen dump the empty shells on the bottom, they move away and won't come back.

The meat is white and rubbery. It has to be pounded. Usually it is made into a chowder, or diced and soaked in lime juice called cerviche in Belize. Because of the rarity, they bring a good price in restaurants as sea food. Most conch are now endangered. The shells get quite large. There are numerous species of conchs. But the main one is the Queen conch.

The Pascagoula Research Station of NOAA has pamphlets on the life cycle of conchs.

Young conchs also have to go to school first and learn how to avoid predators. Conchs have eyes and a mind and are intelligent, if you did not know. The conch survival school run by Glazer in his laboratory setting, sacrifices at least one unlucky conch in each batch by a predator, to teach the others self defense. I agree personally with this approach and fishermen in Belize have known for years that if you cleaned conchs and dropped conch shells, willy nilly in a conch travelling and feeding area, the conchs would leave and never return. From this, developed the Belizean fisherman's practice of waiting until the end of the day and going only to one same unique spot, to kill conchs and take them out of their shells. Around the reefs of Belize you used to see piles of conch shells from this practice. Nowadays such piles have been collected for island cement construction fillers, particularly for foundations. Conchs have to learn how to bury themselves in the sand when predators are around.

In 1992 the census of conchs in the lower Keys area around Key West and some way north to Vaca Key was only 2,250 conchs. By 1997 the census showed an increase to 15,000 conchs. In the middle Keys the story was really dismal. In 1992 there were around 1000 conchs and in the 1997 census there were only 150 conchs left. Perhaps not enough for a gene pool. Possibly poaching has been the problem here. In the Upper Keys of the 150 mile long chain, ( about the same as Belize ), there were a census of 2,800 conchs in 1992 and it had not quite doubled by 1997 to 5,500.

There are no statistics out of Belize, either from the Fisheries Department, or the UCB Marine Research laboratory at Calabash Caye in the Turneffe Island Atoll on the internet, about any conch research or breeding program. Whether Belize has any conch census done on an annual basis, I do not know. Nor do I know if any program exists for tank rearing conchs to the three inch size for seeding along the reefs of Belize. There is however, GRANT money available for such scientific projects from our Belize Electronic Research and Development Library at: http://AmbergrisCaye.com/BzLibrary.

For some budding scientist out of our fledgling University institutions in Belize, there is obviously a community development project of worthwhile endeavor here, from which to make a lifetime career and could be financed largely from offshore scientific grant sources. I hope the professors have the tenacity to encourage someone Belizean to go into this field and endeavor and organize the appropriate education and degrees to suit. Grant writing would obviously of necessity be a part of any such courses.

LATEST CONCH RESEARCH ADDITION TO FISHERIES KNOWLEDGE
May 18, 1998
On the Fisheries front, if anybody actually gets around to doing a Conch or lobster breeding program in Belize, you may be interested to know that studies have shown that Clams, lobster, mussels and other similar creatures, when fed the drug Prozac, which was intended for humans as an antidepressant, makes these lower creatures go into reproductive overdrive. Within a few hours, out pop baby clams. Mussels start spewing sperm and eggs all over the place. In lobster the most successful male lobster is one with the most serotonin, a chemical found in most living things.

Humans on the other hand, seem to lose sexual interest on this drug. An opposite effect. Though some people have reported spontaneous orgasms. .

Prozac's active ingredient is Fluoxetine.

In recent weeks( mid May, 1998 ), we see that the Fisheries Department of Belize have advertised for two new personel, who must be able to run a boat and scuba dive. Just possibly our REPORT suggestion on Conch breeding and conch census surveys jiggled some action in the government financing of fisheries research.

Opening and Preparing Conch

Conch live in beautiful shells. They aren't a shellfish per se but a sea snail. They can be prepared in a variety of different ways, as ceviche, sauteed with garlic, etc. The problem is to extract them from their tough shell. Unless you know the technique, you might find yourself with nothing else but a beautiful shell to look at.


How and Where to Find Conch
Sandy bottoms with grass are usually the best places to look for conch. They can be found in very shallow water in most of the Caribbean but can be dificult to see.

How to Extract the Conch from the shell
You found a few beautiful conch, but you're about to give up or risk breaking the blade of your knife to extract the snail. The reason you can't get at the meat is because he is able to create a vacuum and remains strongly anchored in his shell. You need to break the vacuum by making a hole in the shell on the top on an inside spiral. To pierce this hole, the best way is to use the sharp tip of another conch. If you don't have another conch, a small ax or a hammer can be used. If you have a very strong knife you might be able to use a stone, but you might break your knife. Once you have made a hole and broken the suction you can just pull the snail out with the tip of your knife. It won't offer much resistance anymore. If you can't see the snail, you can break the edge of the outermost spiral part of the shell until the snail becomes visible, then pull it out.

How to Prepare the Conch
You have your snail out of the shell and you see a pair of eyes, a dark part with a very strong foot, a tough nail which was used to protect the snail. You remove all of those. Then you peel off the dark colored skin and only keep the white part. You cut the white part (about half of the snail) in small pieces and prepare them in ceviche or cook them.

If nothing works, what can I do?
You broke your knife or didn't have any to start with. You only have one conch. You just can't get through it what can you do? Just boil the full shell, extract it from the shell (easy once boiled) and add a touch of lime. If you don't have a pot to boil it, make a fire and just barbeque your conch (or just throw it in the fire). Once cooked, extract part of the snail, add lime and eat it up. All the parts we suggested to remove before are edible (except the nail), some are just a bit more chewy than other, but it's still delicious. If you can't extract the snail after cooking it, break the first layer of the shell with another one or a stone then you can easily pull the meat out (use a stick if you have to).

A little bit of cuisine
Conch Ceviche

This recipe needs to come to fruition just after you order it. It is young tender conch cut into cubes, mixed with chunks of tomato and cucumber with diced green pepper and onions, a pinch of fresh minced garlic, a heaping handful of chopped fresh cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper. Served with tortilla chips just out of the fryer and habanero salsa, you need nothing but a local Belikin beer and a nice view to have it all.

Ceviche for Two

Ingredients:

  • 1-1/2 cups cubed conch steak (substitute fresh scallops)
  • 1 large ripe tomato
  • 1/2 of a large cucumber
  • 1/2 of a green pepper
  • 1/3 of a large yellow or white onion
  • 1 small clove of garlic
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • juice of 1-2 limes depending on size
  • salt and pepper

*optional: a tablespoon or two of minced fresh chile (jalapeno, cerrano, etc.)

Preparation:

The conch should be done first. Cube it into quarter inch or smaller chunks place in a bowl and squeeze the lime juice over it. It’s the acidity of the juice that cures the meat, so it needs a little time to work.

The veggies: I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that exact ratios and measurements have no place in my kitchen. Don’t worry about the size of the tomato or the other veggies, use your judgement and make it to your taste. Texture is important, so the operative word here is "chop", not mince or dice. Chop the tomato and cucumber into quarter inch chunks. The onion and green pepper are firmer vegetables and should be cut significantly smaller, dice them. Mince the garlic, and roughly chop the cilantro. Mix all into a bowl with the conch and lime, salt and pepper to taste and serve with warm tortilla chips (out of the bag if you don’t want to fry your own) and tabasco or habanero sauce.

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