Seashells are fun to find, but should you take them home?
It’s actually illegal to take some shells, and it may be bad for the beach to take shells that are legal.
In Manatee County, which includes Anna Maria Island, it’s illegal to take more than two shells per day containing living organisms of any single species, and you must have a Florida recreational saltwater fishing license in order to take them, even from the shoreline, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
The two-shell limit applies to shells with animals living inside, like hermit crabs, as well as sand dollars and starfish, which are animals themselves.
It’s easy to tell if you have a live sand dollar – live ones are brown and fuzzy; white and smooth ones have gone on to the big beach in the sky. Live starfish have flexible arms; dead starfish don’t. You can often find dead sand dollars and starfish where there are live ones; take those, and let the living ones propagate.
The two-shell limit does not apply to oysters and hard clams, but they have bag limits and are subject to regulations on closed seasons, size limits and approved harvesting areas.
The two-shell limit also does not apply to sunray venus clams or coquinas. But wherever there are live coquinas, look nearby for empty coquina shells, which look like butterfly wings – you may not have to take live ones. And keep in mind that the color of coquinas, like most other live shells, will fade when the animal is no longer in residence.
It’s also illegal to take Bahama starfish, live bay scallops or queen conch, but you can take empty queen conch shells as long as you didn’t kill or remove living queen conch to make them empty.
The law allows taking a shell “if the shell does not contain a live shellfish at the time of harvest and a live shellfish is not killed, mutilated, or removed from the shell prior to the harvest of the shell.”
But even when it’s legal, it may not be wise to take shells from the beach, according to a 2014 study on the effects of tourism on seashell loss.
Shell collecting causes beach erosion because shells help stabilize the beach, according to the study, led by Michael Kowalewski of the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Barcelona.
The study says that shell collecting also negatively impacts birds and invertebrates that live on the beach because birds use shells as nest-building material, and marine organisms use shells to hide from predators.
Some countries recognize the negative effects of shell removal, including the Bahamas, which limits the quantity of shells tourists can export without special permits, the study says.
The study suggests that all shells on the beach should be left where nature intended.
So legal or not, living or not, free or not, please don’t take bagfuls of shells home; they’re better off on the beach than in the basement.