Onward with Aquaculture

Caicos Conch Farm plans expansion into fish farming.

By Kathy Borsuk

As I stood at the far southeastern shore of Providenciales and looked out over the vast 65 acres of sub-sea “pasture” at the Caicos Conch Farm, I couldn’t help but note how appropriate the location was. Coasts tend to be revolutionary places, and the Caicos Conch Farm has been on the cutting edge of aquaculture for nearly three decades.
We were here on a sultry day in September for a tour of the farm, led by Trade Wind Industries CEO/Director of Business Development Richard Berke. As we explored the farm’s rather quirky assortment of burbling tanks, covered vats and concrete ponds, our enthusiastic guide explained the conch farm’s history (complicated, in typical island fashion) and its exciting plans for the future.

Aerial view of the Caicos Conch Farm operation

As the world’s only commercial conch farm since 1984, the founders’ original vision was to pioneer conch mariculture, with the goal of stimulating economic growth, supplying a low-cost source of protein and protecting wild conch stocks from exploitation. They succeeded beyond expectations. Today, Trade Wind Industries and the Caicos Conch Farm has set its sights even wider, as it prepares to engage in commercial fish farming.
The Caicos Conch Farm’s roots reach back to 1976, when Chuck Hesse, former president and CEO, founded PRIDE, the Foundation for the Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation. A lab was established on Pine Cay as part of an alternative lifestyle that would rely on solar and wind power for energy and conch mariculture as a protein-rich food source. The cutting-edge research done in those early years became the foundation for the farm’s mariculture operation.
In 1984, Trade Wind Industries Ltd. (TWI) was formed, with the goal of creating a commercial conch mariculture facility. The current site (today, 10 acres of company-owned oceanfront property at Leeward-Going-Through and 65 acres of sub-sea pasture under lease from the Crown) was deemed perfect, as the turtle grass flats offshore provided a natural habitat for grazing conch.
The farm’s first milestone was to nurse conch egg masses through the free-swimming larval stage to metamorphosis (a crucial 22-day process) to grow into the shell-bearing animals we are familiar with. This was no small task, and had never been done before.
As they say, “The rest is history.” Spurred by steadily declining natural stock, growing demand across the globe and the 1991 CITES quota on wild stock, the conch farm soon became the only “unlimited” source of legal conch products in the region.

A Caicos conch hanging out of its shell

Although a series of challenges plagued the business, including a 1993 fire that destroyed many of the buildings and killed 300,000 juvenile conch, the farm managed to struggle forward. By its heyday in the late 1990s, the Caicos Conch Farm was exporting as much as 2,000,000 conch annually, including 1,000 to 2,000 live juvenile conch weekly to Florida gourmet seafood markets, marketed as “conch escargot.”
If you’re wondering why the commercial growing of conch is such an accomplishment, the popular farm tour is a good place to learn. Through a series of photos, narrative and a walk-through of the science-fiction-like outbuildings, you can see how precarious the whole process is.
Mating season for conch takes place at the “egg farm,” near Leeward Cut and barrier reef on the north side of Providenciales from April to September among the farm’s brood stock of 150 pairs of males and females. Farm technicians harvest the egg masses (containing as many as 500,000 eggs) which are covered with sand in shallow seawater. They place the masses in an incubation tank, from which the tiny veligers hatch. The hatchlings are nurtured in indoor vats through the delicate, three-week, free-swimming stage. Next, they take up residence in the metamorphosis facility, in shallow, sand-filled trays. They are fed a blend of bacteria-free algae that is grown on-site in ponds utilizing fish waste and discarded barley and hops from the local Turks Head Brewery! In about five months, this diet transform them from the size of pinheads into fully formed, bottom-dwelling conch about two inches long.

A tour of the conch farm includes the growing facility

After that, the juvenile conch spend the next 18 months in one of the 80 outdoor concrete grow-out ponds, feasting on a fish-plant blend of “conch chow.” Seawater is continuously pumped into the ponds through perforated PVC pipes.
When the conch’s shells are strong enough to resist predators such as lobster, stingrays, nurse sharks and porcupine fish, they are transferred to the subsea pasture, a fenced area offshore where they live on the sandy bottom until mature. Conch grow their shells in a clockwise direction from the day they are born, expanding them using their orange-colored mantles, making space as their bodies grow larger. It takes approximately four years to become a full-lipped adult.
Surprisingly, it takes about 10 domestically grown, Caicos Conch Farm four-year-old conch to produce one pound of the high-protein meat. With all that goes into raising them, Berke estimates the farm grosses less than five cents per month per conch. He says that is the reason why the Caicos Conch Farm has consistently lost investors’ money for 29 years and never earned a dime of profit!
For many, a favorite part of the tour is meeting the farm’s “pet conch” Sally and Jerry, who literally let it all hang out for spectators. These “trained” conch slide out of their shells so visitors can see the eyeballs on stalks, slimy muscle and even their digestive and reproductive organs, all kept sealed inside the shell by the animal’s claw-like “foot.”
In the wild, less than 5% of baby conch survive for every 500,000 eggs, with the rest eaten by predators. At the Caicos Conch Farm, the survival rate is closer to 95% through metamorphosis, and for many years, culling their stock resulted in 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 conch being released into the nearby ocean each year, substantially bolstering the wild population.
During its epoch, the farm produced as many as 2,000,000 conch annually. Yet trouble struck again during the TCI’s “golden years” of the early-2000s, when it seemed anything was possible. One of the wildest of many development schemes was Star Island, a Dubai-inspired landmass to be made of dredged sand on which the rich and famous could dwell. It went the way of the Bible’s “house built on sand,” yet the initial dredging of Leeward created silt that destroyed 4,000,000 growing conch in 2008 and the once-pristine pasture. Hurricane Ike added insult to injury, destroying docks, buildings and offshore pens. In the following years, other problems surfaced relating to finances and Development Agreements, and the farm floundered.
Finally, in 2010, a new shareholder was added to the group of original investors, and they rallied forces to renovate, rejuvenate and revive this Turks & Caicos legendary business. Not only has demand for the queen conch surged in the United States (where no wild conch can be harvested), but imports of queen conch are prohibited there from many of the Caribbean countries. Farm-raised conch have no export or import limitations, so the market for Caicos Conch Farm conch is wide open.

The farm plans to raise fin fish in floating aquapods.

Yet it’s clear that Richard Berke and his prognosticating group of investors are especially excited about their foray into commercial fish farming, utilizing off-shore, deep water, submerged cages. There’s no doubt that the demand for fin-fish has never been satisfied even in the Turks & Caicos’ small market. Residents have few options for purchasing fresh-caught fish, and it is costly. Restaurant chefs, especially for the larger resorts, cannot count on a steady supply of locally caught fish, due to weather and supply constraints, and typically import most of the fish they cook. As well, there is a huge and growing demand for seafood both in the United States and globally, and aquaculture production is the only way to begin to satisfy that demand.
Richard explained that Trade Wind Industries plans to raise five species of warm water fin fish: Yellowtail, cobia, pompano, grouper and snapper. Why this assortment? Grouper and snapper are traditional TCI favorites, popular among locals and visitors. Cobia fillets look like sea bass, taste like wahoo, and boast a spectacular food conversion ratio (FCR) of 1 to 1.5, growing to 8 pounds in 9 months. (Farm-raised salmon, for instance, has an FCR of 1 to 5.6.) Pompano and yellowtail are quite popular in sushi bars and can achieve 2 pounds of growth in 9 months.
The Caicos Conch Farm is currently raising brood stock in huge covered tanks on the farm’s grounds. Upon maturity, these broodstock fish will provide a steady supply of fish eggs for the new 12,000 sq. ft. hatchery that will begin construction in 2014. According to Berke, these high-tech hatcheries can train the fish to literally “spawn on command” as water temperature and light conditions are manipulated.
The fin fish will be raised in state-of-the-art geodesic fish pens, each capable of growing as much as 70 metric tons of fish at harvest. Plans are for eight of these 80-foot aqua pods to be anchored outside the barrier reef on the north side of Providenciales. Here, deep water and steady currents prevent the accumulation of any fish waste on the sea bottom. This approach lowers the risk of disease and provides a more humane and natural growing environment for fish.
The fish broodstock at the farm are presently being fed and developed with an all-natural and commercially manufactured pellet feed that derives 60% of its protein from sources other than fish oil. This facilitates the ultimate goal of raising these fish without further depleting the resources of the sea.
As an addition to the premium conch products that are now grown, harvested, processed and shipped on-site, TCI will add a select variety of fish under the product name, Caicos Catch. They will be processed in a new seafood processing facility expected to start construction in 2014, as well. TWI expects this proposed renovation to generate 50 to 75 construction jobs and 75 permanent, well-paying Belonger jobs, recirculating as much as $10 million annually into the economy. Future plans also include museum-like marine exhibits and an on-site restaurant.
If past predicts future, Trade Wind Industries is bound to make a positive impact on both the TCI economy and its image as a cutting-edge leader in the aquaculture industry. With public sales of conch to resume in 2014 and of fish in 2015, we all look forward with mouths watering!

Tours of the Caicos Conch Farm are available from 9 AM to 4 PM daily. The farm is open on Saturdays from 9 AM to 2:30 PM with free tours for Belongers and residents, and school groups are always welcome. For more information, call 649 946 5330 or visit www.caicosconchfarm.net.

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