The roadside stands displaying an array of the beautiful shells of the queen conch the Cayman Islands are known for are a familiar sight to motorists passing through the eastern districts.
In Cayman’s early days, no one sold conch shells, and conch meat was hardly ever sold either.
The shells on offer are carefully cleaned and buffed to a shine, providing an attractive memento of a seaside vacation that also offers reminiscences of a time gone by.
In the days of Cayman’s early settlers, out of necessity, Caymanians relied on the sea and the land, not only for nourishment but for many of the necessities of daily life. Innovative uses were found for what the sea and soil offered up: coral fans for sieving flour, fish skins for scrubbing, the washwood plant for soap, and conch shells for blowing and for warning ships out to sea of the dangers of rocks in the water near the shoreline.
In Cayman’s early days, no one sold conch shells, and conch meat was hardly ever sold either. Bartering was much more common and money rarely changed hands, so the meat was given away in exchange for something else.
Today, conch shells are commonly sold at stalls at the side of the road. Some are now even using the beautiful queen conch shells to create pieces of art and decorate their yards along with white sand, especially during Christmas time.
Conch shell seller and fisherman Isen Powery, 61, of West Bay, says to clean the shells and get them looking pretty, he soaks them for a couple of hours in a bucket of bleach and soap water, and uses a scrubbing brush to remove the dirt and slime.
Mr. Powery claims increasing competition and tighter supply is making it harder to make a living selling conch shells on the roadside. Conch shells at a North Side stall sell for $5, but in some places in West Bay conch shells are sold for $10 and $20 apiece – especially if it is a queen conch.
The Department of Environment website states that since conch shells are taken from Cayman waters as a by-product of local fishing for their meat, and acquisition of the shell is incidental to this activity, “and because there are currently laws in place to limit the amount of conch fished in Cayman waters, the export of a small number of shells (no more than three) by individuals as souvenirs does not require a CITES export permit.”
The open season for conch in Cayman begins on Nov. 1 and runs until April 30. During that time, up to five conch can be taken from the water per person or 10 per boat per day, whichever is less, according to the regulations.
Conch can only be taken from areas that are not within designated marine protected areas around the three islands, including Wildlife Interaction Zones.