Scorched: A clash between culture, the business and the sustainable future of Bahamian Conch

By Sara Snyder

Conch reigns supreme as the most popular dish in the Islands of the Bahamas. Whether cracked, fried, scorched, raw, or in fritter form, this mollusk has been a staple on the table. But with declining populations and lengthy spawning cycles, will future generations be able to maintain their national dish? The short film, Scorched, provides an intimate look into how the animal is harvested, prepared, and consumed in Nassau. 

Tropical scorched conch salad with tomatoes, mango, and onions prepared at the Arawak Cay locally known as the Fish Fry.

Tropical scorched conch salad with tomatoes, mango, and onions prepared at the Arawak Cay locally known as the Fish Fry.

 
 
 

A Way of Life

For Patrick and his fellow fishermen, getting the conch out of the shell is second nature. As a child, he was taught the proper technique to loosen the conch from its shell for ease of both human and animal.  Although he claims they can harvest between 2,000 and 5,000 conchs in a day during the appropriate season, they maintain their supply by rotating the animals between beds and harvest only the mature adults. He is keenly aware of the need for these creatures, since it is not only part of his Bahamian identity, but a way for him to make money. But what happens when the demand exceeds the supply and the financial incentive is greater than maintaining supply and connection to the national dish?  

Credit: Producer, Shooter, Editor

“Are these the last gatherers of food from the wild to be phased out? Is this the last of wild food? Is our last physical tie to untamed nature to become an obscure delicacy like the occasional pheasant?”

[....] The answer lies in an intricate interplay of ecology, economics, politics and taste.
— Paul Greenberg, (American Catch)
 

The Ocean's Bleak Future

Endless reports note the drastic changes happening to the sea. Between rising sea levels and intense temperature changes coupled with overfishing, it is predicted that a majority of the fishery populations will be irreversibly depleted by 2048. Obviously, this news is dismal not only from an ecosystem perspective, but, too, from a human point-of-view. Many developing nations depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and without a steady supply of fish, their development could stall permanently. Additionally, with increased demand without a strong supply, the value of the commodity spikes, which will certainly lead to exploitation of weaker parties as expressed by Charles Clover in End of the Line. Clover points out that a majority of fishery agreements are entered into by unequal parties and the wealthy are willing to pay more to eat as they please, without consideration for the fish populations or those who survive off of them. This power dynamic puts a price on the oceans and there will be winners and losers.

While the Bahamas is a fairly stable nation with realistic fishery regulations, the demand for conch, particularly in the United States, has inspired illicit black market trades. In order for the conch to remain a staple in Bahamian cuisine, it must be regulated with consideration of cultural consumption and available supply by both visitors and natives alike.

 

Conchservation

In 2015, the Bahamas National Trust launched a campaign to inspire Bahamians to harvest conch with conservation in mind. This campaign does a few things: 1) It values the Bahamian way of life through the traditions of conch harvesting and consumption 2) It shows how conch can maintain its supply by harvesting only the mature animals and 3) It suggests that those not following the fishery regulations are 'outsiders'. The shame tactic here may actually help to continue to reinforce the national identity around proper conch harvesting and instill pride in doing so, so that future generations will have a supply to maintain, too.

Summary 

While there is certainly an abundance of evidence pointing to the positive nutritional aspects of seafood and an emerging portfolio of research acknowledging the challenges the oceans face, very little has been done looking at the impact of culinary cultural traditions in consumption, particularly when speaking about conch. How will these communities thrive and survive without an essential part of their diet? Will these conch harvesting techniques continue to be passed down or be lost with the possible extinction of this creature? Who should experience the pleasures of this menu item-locals who maintain the system and center much of their identity around it or tourists looking to have an authentic Bahamian experience? 

Understanding conch in both a cultural and environmental capacity is to understand the power dynamics at play here. Much like the spiny lobster, the animal is profitable and palatable to those who are wealthy and willing to pay top price for it. On the other hand, the animal exudes Bahamian pride by the traditional harvesting methods and through indulging by the local people.

So the question still remains:

Who gets to eat it and will there be enough for everyone?