Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Of Mollusks and Men

A friend once asked me, "Why Expatriate?" In another lifetime, or at least 15 years ago, I lived on a few different islands and traveled as much of the globe as I could with limited funds and great journalistic ambitions of saving the world's oceans.

Ah, youth. Maybe I made dent somewhere. I hope. The following was an article I wrote for fun, food-related. Little did I know that what I was witness to was a dying trade. The end of centuries of tradition. The conch fishery on South Caicos has since closed and is now a farmed fishery on Provo. Most small fisheries like this are gone due to decline in conch populations. The world moves forward, and too often, these traditional practices are lost, the species themselves decline and are lost. Maybe it is a small blip on the world's radar, but when you sum all of these tiny losses, it is a very significant issue indeed. (Ironically, the publication this originally appeared in, Dive Travel, is now extinct as well).


Of Mollusks and Men

Conch Fritters. Conch Salad. Fried Conch. Steamed Conch. Marinated Conch. Conch Chowder. Conch Burgers. Conch Pizza. Strombus gigas. Queen conch. Conch.

Every time I looked down that inevitable edible mollusk had managed to creep on my plate in one form or another. Having been in Turks and Caicos for three months I had seen conch in about every dish imaginable.

Caribbean inhabitants have been eating conch as a diet staple since Pre-Columbian times. I felt as if I had been too.

Even worse, if it wasn't on my plate, it appeared somewhere else. Conch shells lined the tops of fences and walls. The two-room airport's gift shop at one time featured carved conch shell lamps. Huge mounds ten-foot high and 30-foot long of the "juked" shells made islands in the shallow waters surrounding South Caicos, my temporary home. Cuts on my feet testified to the presence of juveniles under the sand where they couldn't be seen. They were everywhere. And I was becoming "conched" out, no excusing the pun.

Yet I still had much to discover about conch. My opportunity came the day I went out to observe conch fishermen at work.

I was excited at the prospect of going, and made a tremendously expensive phone call to a friend in the States to tell him I would be "conch fishing," hoping he would be amazed. He was amused.

"What are you going to do?" he said, "put the hook down and wait for it to jump on?"

I was not amused. Conch fishing, or conching, is done one of two ways: Either a "conch bucket," a glass-bottomed tube for viewing is used to located the conchs from a boat and then they are scooped up with a long-handled fork, or a free diver swims down and collects them. The former method is the oldest and most traditional, but diving for conchs is faster and is used by almost all the younger fishermen in the area.

We left mid-morning to join the two fishermen who were kind enough to allow us to watch them. They had left early, just as the light of day began and had been working for some time before we arrived.

As one man steered the small boat, the other dived below to gather conch. It looked simple enough to me, but, like most of my dates, looks are deceiving.

I put on my mask and fins and slipped into the water with camera. The diver tucked and went under as fluid as the element in which we were immersed. Graceful. Years of practice, time in the water, work carried the diver to the bottom in one smooth gesture. Immediately, he went to several conch lying on the bottom. I suspected he had some type of "conch radar" because I could see nothing on the sandy bottom that resembled a mollusk. Soon his arms were full; my lungs were empty. He kicked up to the surface in an effortless glide. There he treaded water and tossed the conchs into the boat while I panted.

At one point I picked up one of the mollusks off the bottom and turned it over. Two little eyes perched on a funny "nose-like" proboscis peeked shyly at me from around the inner curve of the shell. Good Lord, I thought, it's cute and I've been eating it.

What looked like a simple job for the fishermen was very difficult. On one breath of air, the diver must locate, gather, and carry the conchs back to the surface. Conchs are not light. The animal has one of the largest, heaviest shells in the world. Total weight market-size is about one and half to two pounds each. Those "effortless" dives were the equivalent of an already neutrally buoyant diver putting on a 12-pound weight belt. This man carried seven conch easily.

Again and again he dived. The rays of light spiraled around him when he approached the surface. I was struck by the perfection and "rightness" of the image. He belonged to the ocean around him.

For a moment, I thought of life just a few hundred miles away, where there were people sitting at desks doing their job under fluorescent sun, their skin taking on a green cast and their life ruled by paper and computer terminals. It was so far removed from this beautiful, natural human. I wondered how two such diverse worlds could be home to the same species.

I tried my awkward best to follow every dive and hold my breath as long as the diver. After less than two hours I was exhausted. I pulled myself back into our skiff.

The fishermen did not stop for lunch. The pile of conch grew rapidly in their boat. Good divers can get up to 800 pounds of conch -- not including shell -- per day.

We thanked the men and left them still fishing. They would not be in to the fishery dock until long after I had an afternoon nap and dinner.

I fell asleep, feeling a bit of a wimp, in the hot sun as the boat bounced over the shallow waters of the Caicos Bank. In my mind remained the image of a diver enveloped in a sunburst of light.

Unfortunately, this image may remain only in my mind if measures are not taken to help restock the conch population. Up until the 1960's 16 Caribbean countries were major exporters of conch. Due to depleted populations and overfishing, only two of the 16 countries still export conch, Belize and the Turks and Caicos.

Although most of the conch dishes to be had in Florida once were content little sea snails grazing across the sand flats of the Turks and Caicos, the TCI export is a comparatively marginal amount.

To make the situation worse, conch have an estimated larval death rate of 99% and take three years to reach sexual maturity. Queen conch also reach market size prior to sexual maturity. This all can add up to bad news down the road for conch fishermen in the Turks and Caicos where conching is the second largest fishery.

One solution is being researched in TCI by The Foundation for the Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation, or PRIDE.

PRIDE set up Trade Winds Industries, Inc. in 1984 as a possible profit-making adjunct. TWI works on developing and testing the feasibility of "conch farming," a means of protecting and supporting S. gigas larvae through development.

Today, according to the Tradewinds web site, current inventory stands at 5.5 million conch. 1 million units exported per year, but this is limited by a CITES quota in order to regulate the fishery and keep is sustainable. The conchs are all produced from 10 acres of land and 60 acres of sub sea pastures.

Conch farming can be used for two different purposes: the conch can be raised to maturity, then sold for meat and shell; or the conch larvae can be supported until they reach juvenile size and used to replenish natural stocks. If this technique works well, "farmed" juvenile conch could be used to replace natural stocks not only in Turks and Caicos, but throughout the Caribbean.

This doesn't necessarily mean conch Macnuggets for all of us, a conch lamp to read by or conch supreme pizza delivered to our door. We probably won't turn on the TV to see a cartoon of an undesirable marine snail imploring us to eat canned "Slug of the Sea." But for the people who rely on the fishery, conch farming could mean the survival and growth of a profitable industry.

As for myself, I will wait anxiously and hope for the success of "conch farming" and of the hard working people of TCI. I can wait for the conch platter. I've eaten about all the mollusk I can manage for some years to come.

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