The Islands of Turks and Caicos (TCI) are known for their crystal blue waters, white sandy beaches, and overall sense of paradise. When we think of tropical beaches and warm weather, a few standard symbols come to mind, one of which being the queen conch shell. We’ve all seen conch shells be used in movies and television as a sort of warning siren, depending on the context, but what happens when the islands in which these precious shells are native to begin to run out?
The queen conch shell is not only a beautiful representation of the Turks and Caicos culture, but it’s also seen as a delicacy menu item for restaurants all throughout the islands. For centuries locals have harvested the queen conch and served it fresh in a multitude of dishes to tourists and natives alike. So it’s troubling that now, there seems to be little to no queen conch shells left in the traditional fishing areas that those who harvest the shells are used too.
Environmentalists have warned the islands for years that overfishing will lead to the eventual downfall of the queen conch’s population and they predicted right. Due to its popularity as both a menu item and decorative relic, the demand for these specific shells has always been high.
“Conch is a national symbol and a huge part of our heritage. [I blame] a lack of action from the government, which still permits conch to be exported, along with watersports operators who allow holidaymakers to take home live juvenile conchs as souvenirs. They assume conch is unlimited but environmentalists have been warning about this for years,” explains TCI’s former culture director David Bowen.
The state of Florida, which is just over 600 miles away from the TCI’s, had the same conch shortage issue and even went as far as to create stricter regulations regarding conch fishing in order to protect the species. It’s predicted that around 200,000 queen conch’s are exported from the island’s every year; which also equates to one million pounds of conch fish meat.
To emphasize Bowen’s point; in earlier years people who came and visited the island took advantage of the rich abundance of conch shells by eating them with most meals, and collecting them to bring back to the United States, or wherever they’re visiting from, because legally there are no laws preventing that exportation.
This is beginning to greatly affect a slew of local businesses on the TCI’s due to the fact that many different eateries rely on the dishes they create by using conch meat for their business. Now, many restaurants are temporarily closing down due to a huge lack of customers and supplies. According to sources, surrounding Caribbean islands are also already feeling the effects of this. Jamaica has already implemented a ban on conch fishing, and the Bahamas are attempting to do the same, as officials from the island claim that they’ll lose their entire queen conch industry if a major change doesn’t occur within the next decade.
The closest thing to a regulatory law that the islands have is an annual three-month period in which all exports are halted, however, now that there’s barely any shells left, it’s not enough.
“It’s horrific that we’ve reached this stage. If fishing persists, it might be too late to do anything. Conch’s importance to Turks and Caicos dates back to the pre-Colombians who not only ate them but fashioned their shells into tools. Later, islanders used them as musical horns while the shells’ beautiful pink colors have seen them displayed in jewelry for centuries,” Kathleen Wood, of research body SWA Environmental.
So far, the only measures that are being newly regulated on the islands include a reduction on the number of fishing licenses granted and a cut back on the large number of export quotas TCI sends out annually. Currently, local experts are also taking inventory of all species in the surrounding oceans of the islands in order to create a more specific policy/law regarding the queen conch.