Can I take that home? How to shell safely without running afoul of the law in Southwest Florida
It’s a common scene along the Gulf coast: A stooped beachgoer straightens up, shell in palm, wondering, ‘What’s this?”
Sometimes, the mollusk in question is still alive – maybe a fighting conch, a periwinkle or a lightning whelk. If luck is with the critter, the observer will gently replace the shell below the waterline, so it can live to delight another day. And if the beachgoer is in Lee County, he or she has also dodged a potential $500 fine and 60-day jail term for violating the county's live shell rules.
Southwest Florida does treasure its shells. Mollusks are fundamental to this region – ecologically, economically and historically. Deeply linked to the $5 billion tourism industry in Lee and Collier counties, shelled creatures also filter water and are key to the food web topped by gamefish. Fossil shells make up many of the roadbeds that crisscross the region and the ancient Calusa people lived on mounds they built of empty shells.
Sanibel Island led the way in protecting them as a natural asset, enacting a citywide ban on live shelling in 1995. Lee County followed suit in 2002.
Yet all too often, says Florida native Jason Cutler, pretty shells are simply tucked into bags and hauled off. Whether it’s ignorance of the area’s rules about taking live shells or apathy about the environmental consequences, he has seen far too many people plucking live shells from area beaches.
Recently in Naples’ Lowdermilk Park, “I watched a man and his wife searching for something. I could hear him say to her ‘What do you think that is inside the shell?’ I asked if I could see it and I told him that was a fighting conch and that he was alive (and) not to take it or he’ll die.”
The man had taken about a dozen that by then were “dried out in the sand by his towel.” Cutler, a Florida native, gave the man a crash course in marine ecology, and won a convert to the conservation cause. But he sees a sore need for more publicity. “Someone’s got to start educating people … What we have left is fighting for their lives. These people are literally taking these poor defenseless living sea creatures.”
Plus, he points out, once those creatures are no longer living, they’re apt to get tossed as soon as they start to smell. Decomposing mollusks are pungent, to say the least, and they’ll most likely end up in trash cans along 1-75 or U.S. 41, Cutler says. “They’ll throw them out when they realize the smell – it’s awful.”
So, in the name of education, here’s a primer on the do's and don’ts of shelling Southwest Florida beaches.
What's the shell?
Check to see if the shell you’ve collected has a living occupant – either the soft-bodied creature that made the shell or something else like a hermit crab or barnacle that may have taken up residence in the discard.
The shells on our beaches come in three basic types. The hinged, double-shelled creatures like clams are bivalves. Gastropods (the word means “stomach foot”) are single-shelled, snail-like creatures, such as fighting conchs. And symmetrical creatures like sand dollars, sea stars and urchins are echinoderms (literally “spiny skin”) . Ways to detect life in each vary.
“It’s easy to tell if a bivalve – something like a scallop or the coquinas that we find a lot in the swash zone – if both of the shells are still attached and if the creature is closed tight and shut,” said Shannon Stainken, youth education director of the Sanibel Sea School. “And with a snail, sometimes you might see its body, which we call its foot, out. If it’s closed up inside, most (but not all) snails have something called an operculum, which is like a trap door that looks almost like a brown leaf or a piece of wood and it’s hard to the touch.”
If the snail has one, there’s more than likely a living resident, she says.
Neither sort of mollusk can survive being removed from their shells. “There’s a common misconception of visitors and even residents that they can, but they can never be removed and live.”
With echinoderms, look for the prickled pelts that lend them their names, though don’t expect them all to be spiky: a live sand dollar looks like its covered in brushy fur while a sea star will have soft, nubbly tube feet that may be moving on close inspection.
“It’s really important when shelling to look very closely and take a long time to observe the shell – to be really mindful and take your time,” Stainken says.
In Lee County, most live shelling is against the law, period. Exceptions are oysters, hard clams (quahogs), sunray venus clams and coquinas, but you need to observe seasonal closures, know bag limits and have a Florida recreational saltwater fishing license, even when shelling from shore, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (See FWC’s shoreline fishing FAQs for more information.
In Collier County except on Marco Island, state laws apply, which require anyone harvesting live shellfish to have a recreational saltwater fishing license, even when taking live shellfish from the beach.
On Marco, however, live shelling is prohibited, as it in in many of the region’s state parks, like Collier County’s Delnor-Wiggins Pass; it’s best to check with your park first.
Bottom line, says Jose Leal, curator at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum: “There’s no need for people to pick up live shells when you have the ones that are empty, that have fulfilled their role in nature and have now been left behind.”
Unlike many other worrisomely finite natural resources, Leal says cast-off shells are in no danger of disappearing, nor do visitors removing a handful of souvenirs threaten the structural integrity of area beaches.
“You have to remember that the source for shells that show up and are pushed onto the beach, those animals are living underwater on the continental shelf in Florida (and) the part of the continent that is submerged is exactly the same width as the state of Florida underwater, so you have a lot of stuff living there,” he said.
“As long as their environment is OK, if the water doesn’t contain pollutants, you have oxygen for the animals to breathe and nature is running its course, as long as that’s happening, those shells will keep coming.”