Is Beachcombing OK?

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.

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Care2 Healthy and Green Living


Al C.
Al C.6 years ago

I was a sometimes shell collector, but -- coincidentally -- tonight I happened to read an article in a local free paper here in Puerto Vallarta about hermit crabs. Turns out that, while the local hermit crab population is not in danger of extinction, the tourist business is in fact harming the hermit crab population because most folks take a bigger shell over a small one and thus leaving growing crabs with no shells to move into/grow into. I did not know this, but the article said that many crabs are essentially deformed into the shells they have because they cannot find more ample quarters to transfer into. The article said that more and more often, hermit crabs are found wearing bottle tops and doll heads due to the lack of larger shells on the beach. This article changed my mind about shell collecting (though not combing), and from now on I'll just admire the shells where I find them. I don't need to "possess" them.

Theresa W.
Theresa W6 years ago

I never really considered it, not being much of a beachcomber. All I have picked up in the past were discarded nets and one of those round floats. I guess that's more like litter.

Chris Ray
Chris R6 years ago

Thanks for the info Melissa!~

Bill K.
Bill K6 years ago

i love beachcombing, but the only things i take from the beach are bags of trash. and along the way i can enjoy the dolphins, birds, marine life, and salt air.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

i don't get to go to the shore a lot. hardly ever. but i like taking home "dead animal parts"

I really wish I knew how to understand getting a salvage permit, or perhaps write to the president to find ways for private collectors to get nation wide permits, issued by wildlife agencies. money from that can go help the critters.

did you know it's illegal to take home a skull from a bird you found? they don't know that you didn't kill it. anyone can lie and shoot the thing and bury it.

maybe those licances can have people get animals that died in zoos and sanctuaries.

Monica D.
Monica D6 years ago

Ultimately it has to be about what is sustainable and humane.

Tami Mendoza
Tami Mendoza6 years ago


Lauryn Slotnick
Lauryn S6 years ago

Taking away truckloads of shells would definitely be a problem, but I really don't think collecting a small bucketful on rare occasion from non-sensitive areas, like the 2-quart limit you mentioned on Fire Island, is worth worrying about. A shell on the beach is like the proverbial "grain of sand," and to start worrying about that, instead of, for example, the emissions produced by traveling TO the beach, is cutting your nose off despite your face. Take some shells home, nothing living, and enjoy them.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

I'm sending this to my cousin who lives in Sargent Tx. She walks the beach and has picked up hundreds of shells, driftwood and sandstone. I doubt this will stop her though.

Cindy P.
Cindy P6 years ago

i use to a cute one here n there that i like when i would walk the beach. NOW that i know how BENEFICIAL it is to the gulf, im ashamed and WILL NOT take from the ocean again. i love Mother Nature and what she's shown us. I hope EVERYONE has read this article and help preserve the beach and for its beauty, especially Galveston Beach!