Conch shells capture the sound of the ocean. Hold one up to your ear on the beach, and the roar of the surf comes flooding from inside. Usually, they’re empty on the beach, and the critter inside is long gone.
The tradition of eating unusual things from the ocean goes back pretty far in history. Conch (pronounced konk) is no different.
We’ll dig deep to find out where you can enjoy a taste of this sea snail.
Let’s dive in!
What is Conch?
On the list of odd sea creatures people eat, conch isn’t the most bizarre. Sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and eel all strike us as a little off. However, with their beautifully ruffled shell, Conch seems like prime eating from the sea compared to a gnarled oyster.
Conchs are soft-bodied sea snails or mollusks. They begin life as shallow water feeders and move deeper into the ocean as they age. A fully mature conch starts reproducing when they’re around four or five years old and may release 400,000 eggs in one cycle. You’d think with those sorts of numbers, we’d have an overabundance of conchs.
The problem is, for the last few decades, the price of the mollusk has risen so high that fishermen stopped only taking adults. With their breeding cycle disrupted, numbers have fallen to the point that conchs are now endangered.
Since the 1980s, conch harvesting in Florida has been illegal, and there are marine reserves to help rebuild the population. Sadly, this strategy hasn’t worked. Numbers continue falling in the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas aren’t far behind. Because numbers are so low, Bahamanian authorities will entirely phase out the conch exports by 2024.
The future is bleak for this iconic sea snail. But if you’re determined to taste this delicacy, there are a few places to try it as responsibly as possible.
Where Can You Taste Conch?
Like most seafood, the best place to try it is close to its habitat. And for conch, that means the Florida Keys. If you’ve never been to the Keys, they’re a sight to behold. The 125-mile chain of islands stretches from the tip of Florida to Key West, 90 miles off the coast of Cuba.
Joined by one long road and 42 bridges, the Keys are a destination. So if you head down to Miami, make sure to plan a trip through the Keys. All along the way are tiki bars and restaurants, secluded beaches, and bed and breakfasts to explore. Peak season starts after the winter holidays in December and extends through May.
Home to some of the best diving, sea fishing, and seafood, the Keys are a perfect place to sample conch. Restaurants are known for their Cuban-influenced cuisine, and conch is on many menus.
Fritters, chowder, and salad made with conch are all classic preparations for this sea creature. But, according to the website Eat Your World, the best place to try the critter is Alabama Jack’s on Key Largo. AJ’s is open daily and serves the best conch fritters in the state.
Pro Tip: Want to try more unique seafood? We discovered What Are Sea Grapes and Where Can You Eat Them?
Is It Legal to Eat Conch?
This is a tricky question because Florida banned conch fishing. So, restaurants import them from the Bahamas, where fishing is still legal. But, as we said earlier, that’ll change in 2024 as conch populations continue to decrease.
The most significant factor in the depletion of conch remains overfishing. Guidelines specifically ban the harvest of juveniles, but that doesn’t stop unethical fishermen. It’s hard to tell the age of a conch, but there are clues. For example, mature conchs have thick ruffled lips on their shells as opposed to juveniles’ thin, papery lips.
Local laws don’t always keep up with new discoveries, and so, in some areas, it’s legal to harvest juveniles. Unfortunately, other island nations don’t have the enforcement available to keep poachers at bay.
So, it may be legal to eat conch, but the ethics of eating it are a sticky issue. On the other hand, supporting local businesses and trying a delicacy may outweigh the extinction of the species for some. And, as long as it’s legal, it’s really up to you.
The best advice we’ve seen is to hold yourself to one serving so that future generations can sample conch.
Best Things To Do in the Florida Keys
Conch isn’t the only reason to make the journey to the Florida Keys. The islands are known for gorgeous beaches and tucked-away destinations. Here are a few of our favorites.
Explore Dry Tortugas National Park
Around 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is the home to Fort Jefferson. Built over 30 years in the 19th century, the fort never actually served its purpose of protecting shipping lanes in the region. A prison after the Civil War, warships used the fort as a refueling stop during both world wars.
An excellent spot to charter seaplane tours, Dry Tortugas also has a high-speed ferry. Visitors enjoy bird watching, diving, and camping, and fishermen also enjoy the park. Just make sure you know what you can legally fish before you go.
Visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
One of America’s best-known writers, Ernest Hemingway, famously loved life in the Florida Keys. His Spanish-colonial home is open to visitors at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West. There are plenty of things for the Hemingway fan to see, including the descendants of his six-toed cat Snowball.
Visitors can wander the grounds and enjoy walking tours of the Hemmingway house. The gardens are incredibly gorgeous and not to be missed. For the truly obsessed, a three-hour tour includes a guided tour and full access to the home and writing studio. So if you’re working on the next great American novel, this might be for you.
The home is open 365 days a year for tours. Rates range from $7 to $17, with the memorable evening writing experience topping out at $1,500.
Pro Tip: Visit the Hemingway Home website for more information about the writer, tours, and the cats that live there.
Best Camping in the Florida Keys
Bahia Honda State Park
One of the best parts of visiting the Keys is the perfect camping weather year-round. So if you blew all your cash writing in the same studio as Hemmingway, these spots might be for you.
Bahia Honda State Park is home to the aborted railroad started by Henry Flagler in the early 1900s. One of the best locations for stargazing in the Keys, the park frequently fills up for day use. Pristine beaches and gin-clear waters surround the island and lure visitors to the shoreline. For overnight campers, reservations are available one day to eleven months in advance.
Day use closes at sundown, but overnight campers can access the Old Bahia Honda bridge for stargazing and night excursions on the waters.
For RV camping, Bluewater Key is one of our favorite stops. Located on Key West, the park offers access to golf, Shipwreck Museums, and the Hemmingway house. Home to excellent seafood and picturesque views, Bluewater Key has lots for rent or purchase.
Campers here enjoy easy access to snorkeling, kayaking, and dolphin swims. We can’t think of a better place close to the tourist center of Key West for RV camping. Nightlife and nature make this a perfect spot for a night or even a season!
Pro Tip: Spend the night at one of these 9 Best Florida Keys Campgrounds
So Much to Experience in the Florida Keys
Visiting the Florida Keys offers a wide range of experiences. Sampling local delicacies are simply part of experiencing the culture. Despite being endangered and ethically questionable, conch is integral to the Keys experience. Don’t make this delicacy the only reason you drive to the Keys, though. Snorkeling, kayaking, stargazing, and sunbathing make the Keys one of our favorite winter stops.
And if you see a six-toed cat along the way, you’ll know you’re in the right place.
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