The Island’s own locally-abundant “conch”
by Christine Conley
When I was a child, quite by accident, I ate a monstrous gastropod. We were on a family trip, and luckily the meat of the conch I was eating was hidden within a crispy layer of fried dough, each bite smothered in a creamy dipping sauce. Conch fritters are still, to this day, a favorite treat of mine when traveling to more tropical locales. So imagine my surprise when, just a couple of years ago, I discovered that the Vineyard has its very own conch capable of providing a whole meal’s worth of food.
As it happens, two of my favorite shells to collect belong to our native conch. Well, whelk to be more precise. It turns out that “conch” is a catch-all word used to describe almost any large sea snail; however, true conchs live in warmer tropical waters and are herbivores, while our own local whelk live in more temperate waters and are carnivorous, living off of other shellfish.
Our most abundant whelks, and the ones you’re most likely to find in the shallows after a good storm, are the Channeled Whelk and the Knobbed Whelk—and both will make a great meal (just make sure they’re alive when you collect them). The Knobbed Whelk, or Busycon carica, can grow to be as long as 12 inches. It has a pear-shaped shell that is broad at one end and then tapers to a pointed spire. The broad end contains six whorls, with the last ring containing “knobs” or spikes.
The Channeled Whelk, or Busycon canaliculatum, is slightly smaller, gaining a total length of roughly 6 to 9 inches. With a general shape like that of the Knobbed Whelk, the Channeled Whelk can be identified by its deep, grooved whorls, which start tight at the top of the main body, follow the contour of the shell, and terminate at the opening to the canal. If you were to place a marble at the top, it looks as though it’d trace a smooth track all the way around.
Like most large sea snails, the “meat” is the large muscular foot, which the animals use both to carry themselves along the sea floor and to grasp their prey. It tends to be tough and requires some tenderizing and pounding before it can be cooked or eaten. In the colder months, whelk can be found in deeper offshore waters; however, beginning in springtime, they migrate to warmer, shallower water. Summer is generally the best time to find whelk in shallow, sandy areas around the Island. However, this is also their favorite breeding habitat and special care should be taken to be sure that they aren’t in the process of depositing their egg strings (which are also very common to find washed up along the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard).
The egg cases of the Channeled and Knobbed Whelks are very similar, with only one consistent pattern to tell them apart. Both resemble a spiral-spinning column, with many one-inch discs held together on one side by a “string.” The entirety of the egg case string can be as long as three feet, though you’re most likely to find them along our shores at about a foot. The main distinguishing difference between the two egg cases is that the Knobbed Whelk’s discs contain two edges, while the Channeled Whelk contains just one.
Midsummer in Poucha Pond on Chappaquidick, is a great place to observe the animals in their natural habitat. The whelk make their way into the protected, shallow, and sandy areas to deposit their eggs. By observation, I’ve learned that these whelk partially bury into the sand to begin laying, anchoring one side of the string into the sand and working their way out once the eggs are adequately secured to the bottom. As is nature’s way, any good summer or fall storm will dislodge many of these egg strings from their perch on the sea floor to later be picked up and admired by beachcombers. If you’re lucky, you might open up a disc (of which there could be over a hundred), and find tens of tiny, perfectly formed little whelk inside. They make a gentle rattle sound when you shake the disc, and you might be able to see them through the parchment-like casing.
A limited conch (whelk) fishery does exist on the Island. However, the strongest market for this tasty sea snail does not. Most of the locally-caught conch is shipped overseas to Asian markets. If you’d like to begin your own culinary adventure by using a locally abundant resource, try a whelk. You might just like it!
Look for recipe suggestions in Euell Gibbons’ ‘Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop’.