Changing times for conch business

Uncle Bob’s Local Souvenirs shop, owned by Isen Powery. Mr. Powery says some days he makes no sales at all, while a good day entails selling 10 shells. When he first started, he was making more than $200 a day. – Photos: Jewel Levy

Increasing competition and tighter supply is making it harder to make a living selling conch shells on the roadside, says West Bay fisherman Isen Powery, 61.

Mr. Powery took up selling shells in 1984 after he had a stroke and could no longer work for Cable & Wireless.

Mr. Powery says some days he makes no sales at all, and a good day entails selling 10 shells. When he first started, he was pulling in more than $200 a day.

“I don’t make much of a profit, but of all the souvenirs the island has to offer, the conch shell tops the list,” he said.

Abraham Oakley makes a living by selling shells and coconuts at West Bay Public Beach. He says he supplements his shell income by selling coconuts.

Both men need to lay out a bit of their profits to cover buying their shells from fishermen.

Mr. Powery, who also claims to be a farmer and philosopher, says he was one of the first people in the district to come up with the idea of selling “konk” to visitors in 1984.

Abraham Oakley demonstrates his conch blowing skills.
Abraham Oakley demonstrates his conch blowing skills.

“I was returning home from a day of fishing and diving with about 10 conch in a bucket when a group of tourists pulled up and asked if they could buy the shells from me,” he said.

“I told them ‘no problem, just give me a few days to get them cleaned up.’ When the visitors returned to collect the shells, I was paid $100.”

Mr. Powery told his wife they could make a business from selling conch shells. The next day he erected a table with an umbrella by the roadside and started selling them.

A dwindling treasure

Anyone who loves the taste of the shellfish will confirm that each new season brings in a smaller supply.

Conch season opens in the Cayman Islands on Nov. 1, with a current quota set at five shells per person, or 10 per boat, whichever is fewer. The Department of Environment notes Cayman’s conch, the Queen conch, Strombus gigas, is protected under the Marine Conservation Law (2007 Revision), and subject to a bag limit and closed season.

In the past, the strikingly shaped gastropod mollusks were found in abundance near almost any dock, and could be bought from numerous vendors island-wide.

Despite the Department of Environment rules, conch overfishing and poaching is leading to depleted stocks in Cayman’s waters. The reason can be blamed at least in part on its popularity, as conch has had many uses.

The meat of conch is eaten raw in salads, or cooked in chowders, soups and in fritters. While all parts of the conch meat are edible, some locals, however, find only the white meat appetizing.

The shells have been used to decorate local homes and yards.

Conch shells can also be used as a wind instrument. A hole is cut in the spire of the shell near the apex, and a loud, haunting sound is produced by blowing into the shell as if it were a trumpet.

The cleaning

To get his shells cleaned and looking pretty, Mr. Oakley says he washes off the dirt, then he fills a bucket with bleach and soap water and leaves the shells in for a couple of hours to soak.

Then he takes a scrubbing brush to remove the algae and slimy coating attached to the shell. He then places the shells in the sun to dry and get the shine back. He does not leave them too long in the sun or they will lose their luster, he said.

A family history

Mr. Powery still likes to spend time on the water.

Isen Powery at his shell stall.
Isen Powery at his shell stall.

“I love fishing, it’s the most relaxing and best thing I do in my life,” he said. “I come from a long line of fishermen and I am proud of my culture and heritage, and even prouder that I can share this with visitors [who] pass by my shell stall.”

Indeed, part of operating a successful business is providing something special for customers. Chatting to visitors at his stall, Mr. Powery tells proudly of the heroic actions of his grandfather Andrew Powery.

“My grandfather swam 20 miles in shark-infested waters to seek help after his boat capsized during a hurricane near the Mosquito Keys, off Nicaragua,” said Mr. Powery. “They were shipwrecked during a fishing trip from Grand Cayman. Some of the fishermen managed to make it to one of the keys but my grandfather had to swim 20 miles to find help.

“He managed to make it to the other key but soon passed out. When some fishermen found him he was barely alive. They put a broken glass to his nose to check if he was still alive.” He added, “Remarkably, four hours later, he asked for a shirt, paddle and boat to rescue his friends.”