Shell Seeker or Trophy Hunter? The difference is in the death…

Last month, I made some phone calls seeking someone to give a tutorial on ‘Shells of Hawai’i’ for this year’s Beachcombing Conference in May on the Big island. If need be, I can do it myself, but I am already giving a lecture and besides, it’s fun to have specialists in their field come to share their insights, perspectives and knowledge. The more ‘experts’ there are for everyone to meet and get to know, the better.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a shell expert who does not advocate the killing of mollusks for their shells. Most of the people with whom I spoke are divers and all seemed to relish the underwater hunt, if not for octopus to eat and aquarium fish to sell, then for slow-moving mollusks that yield beautifully-patterned shells. All of them had any number of rationalizations for their collecting lust. They do it for the sake of science. They do it for cash. They do it to build their personal collections.

​When I brought up the issue of Hawaii’s sunrise shells under possible threat because of decades of over harvesting, for instance, one shell ‘expert’ cheerfully said, ‘Hey, the stocks are fine, and everyone is making a bundle selling them. It’s great! Commercialism is what makes beachcombing so much fun.’

Ouch.  Well first off, that’s not beachcombing. At least, not my kind of beachcombing, which is done on a shoreline, not submerged in the water. And secondly, most consummate beachcombers I know are also conservationists who practice a ‘Do No Harm’ policy to the beaches and waterways they love, and to the creatures who reside in both. This protective stance comes from spending years in these environments; places which have been very good to us. Places which have treated us well. Calmed us down. Cheered us up. Soothed us.  Befriended us. It is hard not to fall in love with such nurturing spaces. And loving something – just like loving someone – urges us to put self-interest aside in order to care for and protect it..

granulated cowries
Gorgeous granulated (aka ‘sugar’) cowries, which are endemic to Hawai’i.

Few consummate beachcombers dig deep holes in the sand or gauge cliff sides in search of beach treasures. Most pick up trash as they comb and work at recycling and using less packaging at home. And they don’t kill living mollusks or hermit crabs for their shells. Instead, they practice ‘ethical-harvesting,’ by keeping only those shells emptied of life within.   Living specimens are left where they are (i.e. in tidal pools) or, if beached in the hot sun, are tossed back into the water.


Why advocate ethical harvesting? Because mollusks are critical to sea ecology. Some filter water. Some supply food to other sea creatures (and to us). Some are even used in medical research to develop pain treatments for cancer and AIDS. Why deny the ocean environment – and all of us – the benefits living mollusks bring to the world just so you can add another shell to your basket on your coffee table, or brag about it on the internet?

lovely shells
Incredibly patterned cone shells

​The ocean and its creatures are under threat as never before. Acidification. Hypoxia. Over-fishing. Plastic pollution. And there are simply too many of us these days for everyone to be out there killing live specimens for their pretty shells.  At this rate, coupled with all the other problems mollusks face, there will be none left for future generations to enjoy.  Killing mollusks in order to satisfy your own shell lust or bank accounts is – at its most basic level – immoral.

​But many don’t agree. There is one guy at a local beach here who drives around with a truckload of coolers filled with cowry shells that he claims he ‘finds’ on the beach. Who‘s he fooling? Nearly all the shells are glossy, in pristine shape, with no sun fading, salt wash, or sand scrub damage. Or get on the Internet and google ‘cleaning shells.’  A plethora of videos pop up offering novices a litany of techniques for extracting mollusks from their homes. (Some of these techniques are pretty gross.)

​Certainly, no one argues with keeping the shells of mollusks you eat – clams, scallops, limpets. And finding an intact shell on a beach, emptied of its owner, is a true gift from the sea. Pocket and cherish it. But unless you work in or for a medical lab, don’t tell me you kill mollusks because you need their shells for ‘scientific research,’ (unless it is a new discovery – and that is rare).  Really, there is no longer any need for every professional or amateur scientist to kill more cones, cowries, tritons or whelks to their own collections for the ‘sake of science.’  All of these can be viewed in picture books or up-close in museum collections or teaching universities.

frog shells
A selection of frog shells

To people who claim to love the coastal and ocean environments, you can’t have it both ways. Killing animals for their shells is anathema to this.  It is, in fact, a hateful,  selfish response to nature’s beneficence.  An act that is little more than self-interested trophy hunting.

​I told one shell expert I would get back to him with details on the conference. Clearly, we are on different sides of the harvesting equation. I haven’t called him back yet because I really don’t know what to say.

​So I am saying it here. And I will begin preparing a PowerPoint on shells found on Hawaiian shorelines. Unless one of you has someone to recommend to give the talk. In that case, I am all ears. In fact, I will be thrilled to find an ethical, nature-loving shell specialist. Thanks in advance for the help.

P.S.: Here’s what you can personally do to stop the needless slaughter of mollusks:

1. DRY up the market. If people stop buying shells, demand will decrease and thus, fewer mollusks will be killed.

​- Do not patronize shell shops or buy from exotic shell dealers

​- Do not buy shell jewelry or artworks unless you know these shells have been ethically-sourced. How can you tell the difference? Oftentimes by the types of shell(s) in terms of their rarity, size and/or condition (including extreme glossiness, a lack of sun damage, fading or abrasion, and/or perfectly-matched bivalves).

2.  Speak up! Let your views be known, whether people agree with you or not. Nature will thank you.


3 thoughts on “Shell Seeker or Trophy Hunter? The difference is in the death…

  1. Washington State has some pretty stringent regs on shell collecting. For instance no more than 13 sand dollars unless you have a license which is based on educational purposes. I did have one and one person was licensed to collect a specific number for the educational use of the Center. You might be able to find out about the collection or a possible lecture person fr4om WA St. Department of Fish & Wildlife on line.

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