The information constantly confounds newly arrived Florida Keys residents and first-time visitors, who inevitably raise an incredulous eyebrow at the irony: None of the conch found in local restaurants comes from the Conch Republic. Well, at least not the lowercase, seafood-type of conch. The uppercase Conchs, as Key West natives call themselves are still a flourishing species.
Fishermen and consumers in the Florida Keys and throughout the country nearly loved their queen conch to death. By the mid 1970s overfishing had nearly decimated the populations in the Florida Keys, prompting fishermen, cooks and craftspeople who made jewelry from the shells to seek the slow-moving mollusks in the warm, shallow waters of other countries, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras and Dominican Republic.
Two longtime Key Westers (freshwater Conchs) noted the relentless craving for queen conch in the United States, and particularly in Florida. Clyde Hensley and Tim Root recently began importing the Conch Republic's namesake seafood staple from the Bahamas, offering wholesale and retail options for dining rooms in both restaurants and residences.
The new business, KW Q Conch, started about four months ago when Hensley was able to finalize a 15-year lease with the Bahamian government. That document allows Hensley and his contracted fishermen to harvest queen conch from Bahamian waters near the areas around Freeport and Eleuthera and sell it in the United States.
"A lot of the conch now comes from Honduras and Jamaica, and it's just not taken care of like they do in the Bahamas," said Root, who on Nov. 5 was elected to the Key West Utility Board. "They have the knowledge and expertise over there to take excellent care of the product, and it's hard to get a lease from the government because they're actually paying attention to the fishery to protect the population."
The difference is apparent from the first bite, Root said.
"Everyone who's tasted our conch have said they can't believe how good it is," said Root, who a variety of conch recipes at each of his campaign gatherings in recent months.
The meat is expertly removed from the shell, and immediately flash frozen to preserve freshness. The queen conch is then packaged into 5-lb. boxes and shipped to Florida, Root said.
"You get about 40 or 50 conch in a 5-pound box, so you get a lot for your money.
The mollusk meat currently retails for $12.95 per pound, Root said. Root, who formerly created and owned Hurricane Hole Marina with Fred Skomp, explained his role as "basically I'm a retail distributor. I buy the conch from Clyde, who moved up to Sebastian, and then sell it to restaurants and individuals."
KW Q Conch is operating out of the Half Shell Fish Market, across the parking lot from the corresponding bar and restaurant, which now features Hensley's and Root's queen conch.
"People are starting to bring conch back to the dinner tables in restaurants," he said, "Because they know the quality and consistency will be there. Seafood is the love of my life, and we simply have a better product available."