St. John USVI Stories: A Conch Tale
The first time I ever held a live conch in my hands was when I came to the Virgin Islands in 1969. Eddie Johnson, the captain of the ferryboat, St. John Express had arranged a conch diving trip to Little St. James. With us that day was Les Anderson and a young lady.
I was amazed by the vast amount of conch that lay in the seagrass under the shallow waters. There were so many, and they lay so close to one another that with one good breath, we could scoop up as many as five or six conch and bring them up to the boat in a net bag. We had contests to see who could get the most on one dive.
That very day we went into the conch business. We sold the entire catch to a man who owned a restaurant in St. Thomas. Because he wanted to use the shells for decoration, he bought the conch whole, which made it very easy for us. In the future, however, he wanted the conch out of the shell.
This was an entirely different story. Getting a conch out of its shell can be a difficult and messy task if you don't know exactly how to do it. A local fisherman, Basil Harley, tried to teach me. He gave me a demonstration. One sharp hammer blow in just the right spot – a little twist of the knife and – Bing, bang – out came the conch. He made it seem simple. But when I tried it, I soon found out that it wasn't as easy as it looked. After unsuccessfully wrestling with one conch after the next and getting covered in slime, I lost all interest in diving conch for sale, and to this day I will only go conch diving if someone else will take the responsibility of cleaning them.
Later that year a Frenchman in Tortola gave John Gibney and I a half dozen fishpots and we went into the fishing business together. We still dove for conch, but they weren't for sale. In those days, conch was so plentiful and in such small demand that it was commonly used to bait fishpots, which was just what we did with them. (We would also make an occasional conch stew or spicy conch salad if John felt like cleaning conch.)
Preparing conch for bait was a lot easier than getting it ready to make a meal. All we had to do did was smash up the shell with a sledgehammer and put the whole mess into the fishtrap.
Sometimes we would allow the conch to "ripen" (age) for a while so that it would take on an odor, which, we were told, was the best way to bait the trap. One day the ripe conch got us in trouble. At that time, the Cruz Bay dock was not a very busy place and the dockmaster, Mr. Wesselhoft, used to let us sell our fish right at the dock. He would also let us leave the boat tied up at the dock as long as we didn't cause any problems or got in the way when the barge came from Puerto Rico to bring water to St. John. It seems that John and I had left the boat in town while it still had some smashed up conch aboard. We were planning to go out later that day to pull our traps and we were going to use the conch for bait. Leaving the already ripened conch in the hot sun was not a good idea; the conch began to stink. By the time a very upset Mr. Wesselhoft was able to locate us, the strong smell of ripe conch was permeating much of downtown Cruz Bay.
Luckily, we got off lightly, having only to endure a well-deserved reprimand and a temporary loss of our dock privileges.
That was thirty years ago and times have changed. Today you can hardly find conch in the shallow seagrass beds where they used to be so prevalent, the Cruz Bay dock is a hustle-bustle of activity, crowded with ferries and passengers, and the price of a single plate of conch and butter sauce can cost as much as twelve dollars – if you can even find a plate to buy.
How to Get a Conch Out of its Shell
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