Commercial Whelk Fishery
The natural ranges of Busycon canaliculatum (channeled
whelk) and Busycon carica (knobbed whelk) overlap
from Massachusetts to northeast Florida. Whelks, also called
conchs, are found in shallow coastal waters from spring through
fall, but migrate offshore during the winter.
U.S. Exports of Whelk
Data from NOAA NMFS Fisheries Statistics
and Economics Division
You may have seen egg capsules washed up on Delaware Bay
and other East Coast beaches. The warm estuarine waters and
sandy sediments of Delaware Bay provide excellent spawning
habitat for both species of conch. Amazingly, it can take a
whelk an entire week to lay one of those strings! On average,
whelks reach sexual maturity in three to five years.
Whelks are harvested in the United States from April to December.
Baited pots, trawls, and dredges are each suitable for harvesting
whelks, but trap design influences which species are harvested.
Knobbed whelks are unable to scale the side of a baited pot
due to their large, heavy shells. Channeled whelks have smaller
shells; the laws of physics work in their favor. As a result,
baited pots are used to harvest channeled whelks, whereas trawls
and dredges select for both species.
watermen typically use wooden or heavy-duty plastic pots to
harvest whelks. An average of 350 pots are baited and tended
every one to two days. Horseshoe crabs are the preferred bait
in Delaware Bay. Both male and female crabs attract whelks
to fishermen's pots. Based on a survey of Delaware Bay watermen,
bait needs of each whelk fisherman were estimated to be 20,000
to 25,000 horseshoe crabs per year. On average, pots were baited
with one female or two male horseshoe crabs. However, integration
of bait bags and bait extenders into fishing practices has
significantly reduced bait needs in the Mid-Atlantic States.
Prior to the 1980s, whelk meat did not command a high market
price, but the 1990s have seen an increase in fishing
effort. A decline in the population of the Caribbean Queen
conch, Strombus gigas, has necessitated a search for
alternative sources of whelk meat. In addition, uncertainty
over the future of the blue crab and stricter regulation of
regional fisheries influenced some to trade their gear for
1999, over 3 million pounds of whelk were harvested for domestic
and foreign seafood markets. Sixty-eight percent came from
Mid-Atlantic waters, mainly Virginia.
Fifty-five percent of the 1999 whelk harvest
was exported to foreign countries for human consumption.
Who would eat a
giant snail, you ask? Check the menu of your favorite Italian
restaurant for "scungilli." If
you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, conch fritters and
conch chowder are savory island specialties.