Strombus costatus - An Elusive Common Species
By Bill Frank
Strombus costatus Gmelin, 1791

     The genus Strombus includes about 55 generally recognized valid species worldwide. Unfortunately for us Strombus collectors here in Florida, the genus is poorly represented in Western Atlantic waters with only six species present. These include the well-known Strombus gigas (Pink or Queen Conch), Strombus costatus (Milk Conch), Strombus raninus (Hawk-wing Conch), Strombus alatus (Florida Fighting Conch), Strombus pugilis (West Indian Fighting Conch), and much rarer Strombus gallus (Rooster-tail Conch). While all of the above species have been found in Florida waters, S. pugilis and S. gallus are much more commonly found from the West Indies to Brazil.

     Although over-harvesting of S. gigas, a popular food item both in Florida and throughout the Caribbean has caused a precipitous decline in the population of this species in Florida and elsewhere, two of the five species; S. costatus and S. raninus are reportedly "common" in the Florida Keys.

     With this in mind, it was with great expectations of wonderful collecting that I moved to Key West in 1987. Indeed, S. raninus were virtually everywhere from the high tide line to safe snorkeling depths - and in a variety of attractive colors. Strombus gigas were likewise not uncommon, although fully developed adults were much less common probably due in no small part to the widespread collecting by tourists who were unaware of its illegality and that it could result in a hefty fine. However, specimens of S. costatus remained elusive.

     A collecting friend who visited periodically from Jacksonville, had found many specimens of S. costatus in the Mud Keys, northeast of Key West about five miles offshore. While he was a casual collector who usually gave me everything that he found, it just wasn't the same as personally collecting a specimen. At long last during one of his infrequent visits, I talked him into taking me out to the Mud Keys.

     After braving very choppy seas in a 12-foot inflatable, I finally had the opportunity to shell this "productive area." You guessed it - not one specimen could be found. It took days for the muscles to heal after the pounding experienced during the trip.

Strombus costatus (Milk Conch)     Undaunted, I convinced my neighbor (a U.S. Coast Guard Chief) to transport me by his boat to the same area at a later date in an attempt to rectify my previous "one time" collecting disaster. Being a mechanic by trade and not a navigator, he decided that the shortest distance between our canal home and the Mud Keys was a straight line. An hour later after we had finally pushed the boat about 300 meters out of the flats where we had run hard aground, we took the correct and much more indirect route which included about 30 minutes in open seas north of Key West. Alas, again no S. costatus were found despite an intensive search.

     After this less than stellar demonstration of his navigational skills, the Chief decided that a matter of principle was involved - a S. costatus must be collected. So at a later date we were off to the rock jetties and channel to the west of Key West. Despite choppy seas and swift currents, we reached our destination without any mishaps.

     I might add that over the course of my lengthy boating relationship with the chief, I had begun to suspect that continuing it could definitely be life-threatening. Other than our-all-to-common groundings, exciting events included nearly capsizing on several occasions, seeing the boat disappearing over the horizon while snorkeling four miles from shore when he failed to set the anchor properly, and engine failure - both due to a dead battery and water in the fuel, and last but not least, barely avoiding arrest by military authorities for anchoring in a restricted area. Over the years, I may have swum and pushed his boat nearly equal to the distance that the boat actually went on its own power.

     Because of the current, we were forced to anchor quite a distance away from the jetties and let the boat swing with the current so we could be nearer to the rocks. Donning our snorkeling gear, in the water we went and were not disappointed. Strombus costatus (both dead and alive) were very plentiful at depths between 15-20 feet. After fighting the current for an hour and collecting 19 of the best specimens, it was time to head back to the boat.

     Unfortunately, the currents had shifted again, and now it was a long swim back. At least this time we had checked the anchor to make sure it was secure and there really was a boat to swim back to. It immediately became apparent that 19 S. costatus were very heavy and that carrying them and staying above water to breathe was impossible for one person. We teamed up and finally were able to return to the boat after a tiring swim.

     Can a collecting jinx be broken? It would appear so. Following this successful trip, S. costatus seemed to suddenly appear everywhere - crawled out on the beach in Key West Harbor and a near record size specimen found in two feet of water at Garrison Bight in downtown Key West.

     To this day, some ten years later, I can still picture the chief in his 17-footer, leisurely floating along with the flooding tide in Key West Harbor with a dead battery, while I sat quite safely on-shore reeling in another Mangrove Snapper. Mission accomplished!

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