Sustainable Shelling

By Kristen Williams

florida seashell pile

Part of being a responsible shell collector is making sure you don’t take home any live creatures when you are shelling. In some places it is even illegal to collect shells that still have an animal living inside. Here are some ways you can sustainably collect shells so there are plenty in the future.

live mollusk on the beach

  1. Be familiar with identifying live shells and organisms.

With gastropods, the mollusk will be visible in the aperture (opening) of the shell. You may see a slimy body that fills the opening of the shell. You will also see an operculum or “trap door” which works to protect the animal from threat as well as retain water in the shell during periods of time out of water, a common concern for some shell species that live in the intertidal zone.

With bivalves, you may see the slimy body of the mollusk inside, or the shell may be completely shut with no apparent opening. Be mindful that even empty shells can have inhabitants such as crabs or fish.

living alive sea shell animals

Urchins, sea stars, and sand dollars are classified as echinoderms. One thing these species have in common is tube feet, which help the animal to move and feed. Live urchins are covered with spines, while sea stars and sand dollars have feet (or cilia, meaning hair-like structure) covering their bodies. If any of the spines or feet are moving, the creatures are still alive and should be put back into the water immediately. When these creatures are deceased, the feet/spines/cilia dry up and fall off.

check seashells before taking them home

  1. Triple check your shell finds.

Be sure to look at all angles of the inside of the shell to ensure no one is home. Even if you do not see a mollusk, small crabs can hide far up into the shell, so it’s important to look as far in as you possibly can to be sure the shell hasn’t been claimed. You can even set out your shells and watch them for a few minutes to be sure they don’t walk away. Also, make sure to check for hitchhikers! Even empty shells can be carrying other life. You may find shells that first appear to be empty, but if you look closely, you may see life inside or even outside of the shell. Live barnacles, mollusks, and other organisms may use the shell as a home or just a space to hang out. Be sure to not take any shells with these live hitchhikers.

live conch and living whelk mollusk

  1. If you find a live shell out of water, lend a helping hand.

Live shells and creatures are often washed up from high tide or exposed from low tide, and a lot of species cannot survive long periods of time out of water. If you find a live shell or creature washed up with no access to seawater, you can help them out by taking them back to the water.

But there are important things to remember. Make sure you first know that the species is not venomous or dangerous to humans. Examples of this are live cone shells, some of which can produce a venom powerful enough to kill in minutes. Jellyfish can sting and some stings can be life threatening. Some sea urchins produce toxins in their spines that can cause infection. If you are unsure of the nature of the species, please do not touch.

egg case for seashell whelk

The good news is that most mollusks and many echinoderms are harmless. The best way to move a mollusk into the water is to pick it up by the shell and gently place it back. If it is safe to do so, you can walk the animal out past the first set or two of waves into calmer water. It’s important to note not to move any mollusk that has its body dug firmly into the sand and has access to water.

If you are rescuing a sea star, sand dollar or urchin, please use another object or nearby shell to scoop them up.  Oils in and on our skin can be harmful to their immune system, so please avoid bare hand touching if possible. If you cannot find another nearby object, you can scoop underneath the sand to carry them back.

Never throw any live shell or creature into the water as it can cause them harm. Protecting live shells is key to protecting mollusk species as they create the shells we will collect in the future.

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.

All photos courtesy of Kristen Williams.

This article appeared in Beachcombing Volume 38: September/October 2023. 

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