Ethical Shelling

birds on beach covered with seashells in florida

Kristen Williams is a beachcomber and sheller from Sarasota, Florida. Her primary interest is in mollusks, but she also loves observing and studying other living organisms that wash up at low tide on the gulf, such as crabs, sea stars, tunicates, urchins, and sand dollars.

kristen williams seashell mermaid

Kristen’s love for live shells started in 2018, when she was vacationing in Tybee Island, Georgia, with her family. “My husband and I enjoy waking up early to see the sunrise, which we did almost every day we were there,” says Kristen. “We must have unknowingly coordinated this with low tide because each morning, we would see hundreds of live sand dollars washed up. We knew they were alive because they were dark and fuzzy, and the town was nice enough to put up a sign showing the difference between live and dead. Even though it was illegal there, we unfortunately saw many people taking the live sand dollars and leaving them to dry out in the sun.”

live mollusks on beach in florida

Later that day, Kristen encountered two beach patrol officers, and they told her they’d witnessed countless tourists taking live sand dollars every day and told her a story about a woman who took live baby sea turtles back to her hotel room. “This broke my heart, and since that trip, I decided I was going to learn all I could about live sea creatures and share my knowledge with others.”

living florida seashell animal mollusks

While it sometimes seems like the beaches are filled with endless shells, many mollusks are endangered. “Over 300 species of mollusks have already gone extinct. The queen conch, for example, has moved between threatened and endangered multiple times since the early nineties. The Florida horse conch was recently added to the list of threatened species,” says Kristen. “Climate change has become an issue for most ocean life, but the prominent concern is over-harvesting.”

Mollusks are live harvested for consumption and are also sought after for their shells. Since they mate in groups later in their lives, in recent years they are having a harder time finding these groups to reproduce. “Many parts of the world have implemented regulation of mollusk harvesting,” Kristen says, “but the United States is lagging in this regard.”

Mollusks are integral to many healthy ocean ecosystems. They are an important food source for crabs, birds, fish, and other critters, and many of them are filter feeders and actively create cleaner seawater.

alive mollusks on beach whelk laying eggs on beach

Kristen believes that ethical shelling is not only the right way to beachcomb, but it is also critical to sustaining this wonderful hobby. She defines ethical shelling with three main points.

  1. No live shelling.

kristen williams collecting empty shells

“Live shells are the key to the future of shelling, because they literally are the future shells we will find,” says Kristen. “It’s important to never collect a live shell, no matter how pretty or rare it is.

empty shell of lace murex mollusk

Kristen encourages anyone to get involved in volunteer opportunities, beach cleanups, education, and conservation of the environment.

  1. Stay within collection limits.

handful of empty seashells from florida collector

Staying within collection limits is also important. “Seashells contribute to the health of the shoreline. Once the animal passes and the empty shell is left, it will eventually biodegrade and become part of the sand and shoreline,” says Kristen. “Seashells also provide homes for many creatures such as crabs, fish, and octopuses. Over-shelling can be damaging to the ocean environment and can contribute to beach erosion.”

  1. Take back shells you no longer want.

throwing back seashells into the water

Over time, Kristen has become more selective about the shells she collects and keeps, and she really enjoys taking back seashells when she no longer wants them.

kristen williams the seashell mermaid @theseashellmermaid tossing shells back in the ocean

She adds, “It not only frees up space in my home, but it also makes me feel good knowing that I am giving back to the ocean when it has given so much to me.”

All photos courtesy of Kristen Williams

Learn more about seashells

nature and history of seashells and collecting

Learn more about identifying shells, the history of seashell collecting, great shelling beaches, and the lives of the animals who make the shells we find on the beach. Articles ›

No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Volume 37 July/August 2023.

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