The Real Caribbean Queen
By Alain M Brin
Yes, we all know the song. And we share the Caribbean dream! But the real Caribbean queen is the queen conch: royalty of the shellfish throughout the Caribbean Sea. A resource for ocean dwellers and island dwellers alike, she provides some of the most valuable support for the entire region, and is equally valued in the US Virgin Islands. You’ll see this shellfish delicacy in venues ranging from beach barbecues to catered destination weddings and corporate events in the USVI. Growing up to 12 inches in 3-5 years, the queen conch captures calcium and carbonate ions from the seawater and uses them to build and thicken her stunning gold, cream, and deep pink shell as she grows. Clearly, the title “queen” seems appropriate for this magnificently flamboyant creature. However, the historic name of “Queen Conch” most likely originated from the former British Bahamian Colony, where the locals refer to it as the true Bahamian Royalty.
The beautiful queen conch shells are used throughout the Caribbean to line the aisles at beach weddings, edge lawns and driveways, and more. Villa Norbu uses conch shells as tablescape decor, lanterns and ceviche serving plates for both island weddings and corporate events.
Where the Queen Lives:
Queen conch live mainly in the seagrass and sandy beds in the beautiful coves and bays of the Caribbean. (Not far from the cliffs of Villa Norbu lies a colony of these majestic shellfish. Soolan & I visit them regularly.) The insides of the shells are colored in glossy hues, from marble white to peach to pink, while the outsides are a mix of golden tones to blend with Caribbean sand. Vegetarians themselves, queen conch graze for algae along the sand, and use the sand to hide their eggs from predators. Each “egg mass” has roughly 500,000 (!) eggs, woven together with the sand to protect the delicate eggs.
The best places to find queen conch in the USVI: Nestled in the turtle grass along the southeastern shores of St. Thomas, St. John & St. Croix. The St. James Marine Reserve & wildlife sanctuary between the St. James islands is a guaranteed venue for conch sightings; you can snorkel over hundreds of conchs of all sizes.
In the 1990s, 16 Caribbean countries exported conch to the United States; today only 3 countries do. Anegada is the only island in the Virgin Islands with a continuing conch industry. It is famous for its “conch shell islands,” which you can spot while flying, sailing, or power-boating near the beautiful clear and shallow waters of Anegada’s eastern coast. Queen conch and Caribbean spiny lobster are the most-requested items at the restaurants and resorts across Anegada.
Diving for the Queen:
Today, conch is fished mainly by free diving in depths from 4-90 feet of water, a return to the traditional, time-honored shellfishing practices, and requiring a dive buddy, in case of shallow-water blackout coming up from the depths.
A Caribbean Cuisine fit for a Queen:
Conch has long been an integral part of local menus in the Virgin Islands. This delicious sweet white meat is served in a variety of ways: raw in salad & ceviche, baked or fried in fritters, stewed in a butter sauce, over polenta...
Fresh hand-harvested conch in passionfruit ceviche, and smoked conch ravioli, are two dishes exclusive to Norbu, available on Norbu’s Garden & Reef custom menu for weddings and events held during conch season.
Saving the Queen:
Like many fish and shellfish worldwide, the Caribbean queen conch population has been in a slow decline for decades. Now listed in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), conch is harvested very carefully, with limits to protect the population. Since the decline is largely due to previous over-harvesting, harvesting of juveniles, and a lack of consistent enforcement across the vast areas of the Caribbean sea, Soolan & I are passionate about sustainable gathering and helping keep local practices responsible. Loss of habitat due to climate change and coastal construction also plays a big role in decrease of population densities, and The Nature Conservancy’s Virgin Islands branch became a leader in creating and nurturing “nurseries” to foster the regrowth of seagrass beds and coral reefs, later providing conservation consulting to islands throughout the Caribbean.
Recently, Soolan and I made a startling discovery while snorkeling near the east end of St. Thomas. We came upon a turtle grass bed with a strange crater-like depression, probably created by a tropical storm. Countless queen conchs had entered the circle while grazing, but found themselves unable to climb out of the steep trench.
At first it appeared a mass grave of queen conch shells, but diving deeper, we spotted some that appeared to be alive. After numerous dives, we managed to free over 50 live queen conchs, carrying them up and placing them back in the turtle grass, where they have access to acres of food. Long live the Queen!