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All About: Queen Conch in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Their shells are used throughout Sailrock, South Caicos to line walkways, as garden bed enhancements, as décor and art (have you seen the conch wall in Sailrock’s Great House?), and their meat is used to sustain a people as well as delight discerning guest palettes with an authentic taste of the Caribbean. We are speaking, of course, about the Queen Conch!

The Queen Conch, also known as Strombus gigas, is a species of large sea snail found in warm Caribbean waters, including the Turks and Caicos Islands. These snails have unique life cycles and play an important role in the ecosystem of the islands.

Conchs possess both male and female reproductive organs. They typically procreate by releasing eggs and sperm into the water where fertilization occurs. Some species are also able to reproduce through self-fertilization. The Queen Conch stars its life as a small, free-swimming larva. After several weeks, it settles on the ocean floor and begins to grow its distinctive spiral shell from calcium carbonate. As the snail matures, its shell can grow to 12 inches long and weigh as much as 5 pounds and the snail uses it for both protection and negative buoyancy. Their shells are pink, orange, and yellow in color with a flared lip that has become valued for decoration and local crafts.

As herbivores, the conch feed on various seaweeds and other types of marine plants and play an important role in maintaining the balance of coral reef ecosystems by preventing sea grass overgrowth and controlling algae blooms. They’re also a primary food source for sea turtles and predatory fish and once harvested or after their natural life cycle, discarded shells are used by sea urchins and hermit crabs as habitats.

turks and caicos conch

Conch at Sailrock, South Caicos near The Cove Beach. Look closely for the snail inside its shell.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands the conch is an important food source and since they live in shallow waters, they can be caught by diving or by using a simple hand rake. The meat is typically removed from the shell, cleaned, then grilled or fried into a variety of local dishes such as conch salad, conch chowder, and conch fritters, many of which can be found on the menu at Sailrock South Caicos. To ensure the continuance of this important food source and the sustainability of the species, there are limits and regulations in place throughout the islands as to how many can be caught and during which months harvesting is allowed. This also ensures that the conch fishing industry continues as it an important source of employment for Turks and Caicos Islanders.

Beyond being an important food source, the conch is also a symbol of the island’s cultural heritage (there’s on conch on the Turks and Caicos Islands’ flag) and is celebrated through local festivals and events. Every November Providenciales hosts the Turks and Caicos Conch Festival which celebrates the conch both as a national symbol and the islands’ top export. Held in quaint Blue Hills, the annual Conch Festival hosts a competition for local restaurants to see who has the tastiest and most creative use for conch.

life cycle of queen conch

Above image via Katherine Orr in Letters From South Caicos, pg. 93

If you’re interested in learning more about the remarkable Queen Conch, a newly published book from the South Caicos Heritage Foundation by Katherine Orr is available at Sailrock South Caicos’ boutique or via Barnes & Noble here. Letters From South Caicos is a collection of writings, drawings, and photographs by the author during the two years (during the mid 1970s) she spent studying conch on South Caicos. To fulfill her master’s degree, Orr needed a project, and it just so happened that the National Park Service in the US Virgin Islands needed a fisheries question answered: did conch migrate? In letters written to her parents over the course of her time in South Caicos, Orr reveals the Turks and Caicos Islands as they were including the adventures, mishaps, beauty, and culture she experienced.

And in answer to Orr’s question, but not as a book spoiler since it’s so much more than that: “conchs walk plenty!” (Orr, 92).