The queen conch is a large marine snail that lives in the Caribbean Sea and adjacent waters and is one of the most valuable fishery resources for every country throughout its range. Reaching its maximum length of approximately one foot (30 cm) in three to five years, the queen conch spends its growth resources thickening its shell, rather than increasing its size, for the remainder of its life.
The oldest queen conch individuals have been estimated to reach ages of 40 years. While the thin shell of juveniles can be broken by a variety of potential predators, the thicker shell of mature adults is a successful deterrent against all but the most specialized conch predators. One species that successfully eats adult queen conch is the nurse shark, which can create enough pressure to suck an individual right out of its shell, a feat that people struggle to accomplish using tools.
Queen conch live in sand flats and seagrass beds that are associated with coral reefs but are rarely observed on the reef surface itself. While the inside of their shells are bright pink or orange, the outside is sandy colored, and they blend in well with their surroundings. Queen conch are herbivores that browse for plant and algal material growing on the surface of the sand and also sometimes scavenge dead and decaying matter as well. The queen conch reproduces through internal fertilization, and the female lays her sticky eggs on the sand, where they quickly become covered with sand and other material, offering them camouflage and protection from egg predators.
Queen conch populations are declining throughout their range and have been mostly depleted in some areas. They are highly sought after for their meat and are one of the most valuable species in the Caribbean. For this reason, they are vulnerable to overfishing. Fishers throughout their range catch queen conch by free diving or SCUBA diving to catch them by hand. Using this method, a team of divers can capture every individual in an area. It is not uncommon to see mountainous piles of empty queen conch shells near fishing camps that specialize in their capture. This species is harvested through a managed fishery throughout its range. Regulations on time of year and location where the queen conch can and cannot be captured are defined by most countries where it is fished. Unfortunately, poaching and other forms of illegal fishing, plus fishery regulations that are not based on the best science, threaten this species, and populations will likely continue to decline. Along with Caribbean spiny lobsters, the queen conch is one of the most valuable exports for small Caribbean countries, and a collapse in this fishery would threaten coastal economies in many places.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.