The conch in the conch chowder and fritters you get in the Keys probably came from South America, Jamaica, or the Bahamas. The queen conch was once heavily harvested in waters around the Keys. In 1965, 250,000 conchs were brought into Key West alone.
Today only a small, protected fraction of the once plentiful mollusks remains in local waters. Commercial harvest was stopped in 1975, and recreational harvest was outlawed in 1986. The depletion of the species was as much a result of its shell as for the meat that is so popular in local recipes. The pink and white shells were used for roadbeds, as a building material, and as a very beautiful souvenir to sell to tourists.
By 1991, it was apparent that conchs were not recovering and a state-run hatchery was opened on Long Pine Key. The scientists are raising and releasing baby conchs and then following their progress in the wild. So far, 6,000 of the young mollusks have been released. Scientists are also experimenting with moving them into deeper waters away from predators, to allow for natural reproduction and re-seeding in the waters.
If you see a conch shell, don't pick it up. Even one animal is important in repopulating the species. Under state law it's illegal to collect or even disturb queen conchs.