Conch will not come off Florida Keys restaurant menus in the near future, but a federal endangered-species study of the mollusk means the days of conch fritters could be numbered.
"Think about how many restaurants down here serve conch fritters or conch chowder," said Rick Hill from Key Largo Fisheries. "Except for Burger King and McDonald's, just about every one of them."
Through Oct. 26, the National Marine Fisheries Services is collecting comments on its August decision that queen conch merits a status review as an endangered or threatened species.
WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, petitioned the Fisheries Service in March to consider queen conch (strombus gigas) as a protected species.
"Information in the petition was substantial enough, based on harvest rates and biological characteristics of queen conch, to move forward," said Calusa Horn, a biologist in NMFS' Office of Protected Resources.
Any declaration of endangered-species status would be at least a year away, following a 12-month status review initiated by the August determination.
"It could take a few years before a decision is made to move forward from there," Horn said. "And it could be that nothing happens."
Harvest of queen conch has been banned in Florida state waters and adjacent federal waters for years. All conch meat legally served in the United States is imported from Caribbean and South American countries where harvest is allowed.
Key Largo Fisheries, which supplies many Keys and South Florida restaurants, imports from the Bahamas, Nicaragua and a conch farm in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The Bahamas alone shipped nearly 300 tons of conch meat, worth an estimated $3.3 million, to the United States last year, according to the Bahamas Tribune.
"Conch is good for you," said Joe Deconda of The Cracked Conch Cafe in Marathon. "It's a pure white meat that's high in protein and low in fat."
"About 75 percent" of menu items at The Cracked Conch contain the mollusk meat, Deconda said. "We've specialized in conch for 32 years."
"The tourists like it and conch has developed quite a following among our local customers," he said.
But Deconda remembers when sea-turtle meat was a mainstay of Middle Keys restaurants like Handley's and The Bird Cage.
"If they eventually tell me I can't serve conch, there's really no choice," he said.
Laura Dreaver of The Key Largo Conch House said environmental concerns are a priority for her family-owned restaurant.
"We would never serve a protected species," she said. "If it came down to it, we'd change our name first."
Bob Jones, executive director of the commercial Southeastern Fisheries Association, said a ban on importing conch "would have a big impact on our member dealers who serve the local restaurants."
An endangered-species declaration could lead to new rules to protect the conchs' habitat on the ocean floor, Jones said. "They always go to extremes," Jones said. "Are they going to ban anchoring and putting traps on the bottom?"
A number of conch studies cited by the WildEarth Guardians petitions took place in Florida Keys waters.
"Queen conch have already been so heavily exploited in many areas that a viable fishery no longer exists, yet the population continues to be steadily depleted," the group said in a statement.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute will submit comments on the federal review but will not release a draft version.
Growing conchs through aquaculture can be successful in a limited program, but probably not at a commercial-food level, said Bob Glazer, a noted FWRI conch researcher.
It takes about 10 adult conchs to produce a pound of meat, he said.
"In the wild, one conch occupies about 10 square meters," Glazer said. "It's a huge, huge area." Growing conchs in a high-density commercial setting typically results in smaller animals with lower quality meat, he said.