As far as summer souvenirs go, I’ll take a small chunk of coral over a dolphin snow globe in a heartbeat. It’s a soul-satisfying kind of pleasure–rambling along the beach, head down, seeking small treasures. But when I come across a piece of coral, a sand dollar, a sea urchin shell…is it all right to take it home? How about a plain old scallop shell? Are there environmental implications in taking seashells home to rest on my table rather than letting them live out their lives on the sandy beach?
In most Caribbean countries, taking home seashells is forbidden and the rules are enforced. In the United States it varies from beach to beach. You should check the rules and laws about shell collecting where you intend to beachcomb. Some places don’t allow collecting at all, some have limits on how many and what types of shells you can take. Contact the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inquire about local seashell collecting rules.
There seems to be very little information on the ethics of seashell collecting. For a gauge, I looked at various guidelines across the country, and found that many beaches have rules against collecting “live” shells (shells with living creatures inside) but that most recreational seashell collecting is okay, although many state and national park beaches have a limit on the amount of seashells you can remove.
Seashell collectors count Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida among the world’s top shelling destinations, and I found information about seashell preservation from the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce that is interesting. They describe the role that shells and their inhabitants play in the islands’ ecology: Shells keep sand in place and create more as they’re crushed by waves and other forces; provide food for birds and fish; and the scavenging and filtering performed by certain mollusks help cleanse Gulf waters.
The State of Florida has outlawed the collecting of live shells on the islands, and the law also applies to sand dollars, starfish and sea urchins; while all shelling is prohibited in certain National Wildlife Refuges. Unlike Fire Island, N.Y., which has a 2-quart limit on shells, shellers in Florida are only urged to limit their shell collection. As stated on the chamber’s Web site, “hauling away seashells by the bucketful diminishes supplies and the value of a single shell.”
And I have to think that’s just about right. I’d never take a living seashell–to me it would be the same as taking a chipmunk or something. I’m not so sure how I feel about collecting non-live shells. They are a part of an ecosystem and historically there have been too much damage associated with the collection of natural specimens. But laws providing, I hope it is okay, in the big eco-picture, for me to take a little shell home from time to time. I’m just not ready for that seaside snow globe.