Scientists try to restore conch population in Florida, Caribbean. Industry harvested millions of pounds of conch meat yearly

Fearing that a once-plentiful marine mollusk may be disappearing from Florida waters, scientists here are carefully assessing the stock of the queen conch. The conch, known to tourists for its role as the main ingredient in fritters and chowders, may be replenished through mariculture if stock counts fall as low as expected.

Scientists figure that the wild conch probably will never again support the commercial fishery that resulted in millions of pounds of conch meat being harvested a year, as it once was in the Florida Keys. But a revitalized wild population would reintroduce the conch to the state's marine environment, and let people come in contact with it.

Local conch also will give more truth to the designation of Key West as the ``Conch Republic.'' As it now stands, all conch meat must be imported from Belize, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. The animal is considered commercially endangered.

The conch, widely known throughout Florida for its pink-lipped shell, was restricted to a daily bag limit of 10 just a decade ago. That limit declined to two daily until a moratorium was placed on taking all conch last year. In Key West, state Rep. Joe Allen led a delegation of lawmakers to the first commercial conch farm on Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos last spring. Its mission was to determine what Florida could learn from the conch farm in regard to hatchery and growth of young conch.

``We're behind the times in Florida in not coming up with a way to farm conch,'' Mr. Allen says. Key West natives are known as ``conchs'' for their sense of stubborn self-sufficiency. Subsistence fishing of the high-protein mollusk is no longer possible, however, ending a way of life once crucial to island survival, he says.

Ed Joyce, director of the Division of Marine Resources for Florida's Department of Natural Resources, says the population count will lead to some form of conch management. ``We may let the folks at the [Caribbean] conch farm hatch them out, using egg masses from Florida stock to keep the gene pool localized.''

The Caicos Conch Farm hatched some 6 million conch over the 1985-86 growing season using fresh conch egg masses collected from a nearby reef. The farmed conch that are still living after 2 years will be harvested and sold as food, although smaller and younger juvenile conch may be spread in Caribbean waters to replenish those declining wild stocks. The animal was once a major source of food export from 16 island nations there, but overfishing has diminished that fishery, restricting exports to the two countries.

The role of the conch as a regional resource has caught the attention of the United States Agency for International Development. It now directly funds two pilot projects, one in Haiti and one in Belize, to hatch and reseed the mollusks. And through the Latin American Agribusiness Development Corporation, AID provided a $25,000 equity investment to the Caicos farm.

In addition to serving as a high-protein, low-fat food source, the shellfish also has the ability to produce a high-quality, pink-colored pearl just now beginning to appear in the New York market. Scientists at the Caicos Conch Farm are working to culture the valuable pearl, which would create income to help them fund other aspects of food production. The ultimate goal of that facility is to provide a transfer of technology to Florida and throughout the Caribbean, and to create a factory that ensures the existence of a primary food source for years to come, according to farm director Chuck Hesse.

The idea behind the farm-raised conch is the same as that of other species grown through mariculture: to greatly reduce the early mortalities from disease and predators, which may devastate 99.99 percent of all eggs hatched in the ocean. ``By the time we put them out to sea,'' says Megan Davis, the biologist who runs the Caicos hatchery, ``they'll be the pick of the litter so to speak. And they've had the best attention a conch can ever expect to get.''

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