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Why You Shouldn’t Buy Seashells or Take Them From the Beach

‘Can you take shells from the beach?’

‘Is it bad to take shells from the sea?’

They are questions I often hear. The answer may surprise you, but, leaving seashells where they are is actually one of the easiest ways to protect marine life and make a small contribution to saving our oceans.

Let’s talk about seashell souvenirs. Those large conch shells, a picture frame decorated with shells, or one of those pretty seashell necklaces… We have all seen them, right? And most of us have probably bought or received a seashell souvenir at least once.

But did you know that these shells are often harvested with living animals still inside of them?!

And this is just one of many reasons why seashells belong on the beach, and not in our homes.

But, before I tell you more about why you shouldn’t take or buy seashells, I have to start with a confession: until recently I didn’t know most of this either, and yes, I have taken shells from the beach as well…

A few years ago I went to Eilat, a small coastal town in Israel, to volunteer at a coral reef conservation project. It was here that I learned you shouldn’t take shells from the beach.

And I saw the striking difference between a protected beach where no shells, starfish, dead coral, etc. are taken versus one where people can do whatever they want…

The difference is shocking! Not only are there more beautiful shells on that protected beach, the coral reef is healthier and there are so many more colorful fish to admire!

So, ever since then, I’ve been trying to explain why we shouldn’t take shells from the beach or the ocean. Which is exactly what I want to share with you in this article.

Why You Shouldn’t Buy Seashells or Take Them From the Beach

You might be wondering: what’s wrong with taking just one shell? What difference does it really make? Well, it can make a world of difference.

Depending on the shell you take, you could be robbing an animal of a home, building material, food or even disturbing an ocean ecosystem.

Also Read: What is Ecotourism & How to Be a More Sustainable Traveler

Here are a few reasons why you should leave seashells where they are:

1. It Robs a Sea Creature of a Home / Shelter

ways to protect marine life: don't take shells from the beach
hermit crabs in different spiral shells

Let’s say you find a pretty shell on the beach. A spiral shell for example. And you decide to take it home with you.

Sure, they are beautiful, but did you know that hermit crabs depend on empty spiral shells for their survival?

These sea creatures need to move homes when they get too big for their current shell. If they can’t find a larger one, they’ll die from exposure or get gobbled up by a predator.

Or they can use our trash as a new home as you can see in this short, sad BBC video:

Small fish and octopuses also use shells for shelter and protection. Check out this amazing video of an octopus that was discovered using a plastic cup instead of a shell for protection.

Imagine what would happen if we continue to rob ocean animals of the tools they need for their survival.

And it’s not just to protect marine life. Certain birds also use parts of seashells to build nests.

2. Animals Die to Harvest Pretty Shells!

how to protect marine life: don't take or buy seashells

Buying shells from shops – just don’t do it! Yes, these shells are in great condition, but that is because they were collected alive.

A 2015 study documented the effects of this harmful harvest. Vincent Nijman, an anthropology professor at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, followed the illegal trade of Indonesia’s protected shells.

He found that poaching of these protected shells is rampant. “We are talking about a large-scale, commercial trade where the shells are collected by active fishing (scuba diving, cages, etc.) and where entire sections of the ocean floor are emptied,” he said.

His more recent 2019 study shows that protected shells are still widely sold, that illegal traders are rarely successfully prosecuted, and that shells often make their way abroad, to be sold anywhere from the USA to China.

Then there’s Amey Bansod, who came across this cruel practice firsthand in Kanyakumari, India. According to this article in National Geographic, he witnessed mountains of “newly harvested mollusk shells- living animals still inside them,” that were put through a horrifying process, including being laid out to dry in the sun and then dunked in oil and acid.

Those shells were then shipped to artisans in nearby towns who make jewelry and other mementos to sell to tourists.

A similar practice of exploitation allegedly occurs in the Philippines, Indonesia, and throughout the Caribbean

This Indian documentary, although several years old, shows part of the industry and displays some of the large piles of shells that are taken from the sea.

3. It Exacerbates Existing Issues of Overtourism

how to protect the marine environment

Let’s get real here – is collecting shells (i.e. “shelling”) by beach walkers or divers really going to strip the ocean of all its shells? Of course not. But a reduction in shell abundance due to tourist activity has already been documented at a Spanish beach.

This is outlined in a study that found a 60 percent decrease in the number of shells on a beach in Spain over a period of 30 years. This correlates with a huge increase in tourism over the same time period.

Researchers believe that shell collecting surely had a role to play, but that there were potentially other factors involved as well including the use of recreational vehicles, recreational clam harvesting as well as the grooming and cleaning of the beach with heavy equipment during summer months.

So, shell collectors weren’t completely to blame – but tourist activities certainly were. If we are already responsible for this decline, why add to it by taking what doesn’t belong to us?

Plus, if we all thought the same way – i.e. “I’ll just take a few shells, I’m just one person, what difference could it make?”, well, we’re going to end up in deep trouble!

4. It Can Affect the Ocean’s Ecosystems & Increase Shoreline Erosion

why you shouldn't take shells from the beach or buy them

The ocean supports many delicate ecosystems. If one thing is out of balance, the results can be devastating.

For example, some experts say the removal of shells can impact shoreline erosion patterns. This could have dire effects on coastal populations, especially in combination with global warming and rising sea levels.

Not only that, but every shell performs some ecological role. For example, the queen conch helps keep the Caribbean’s waters clean and provides food for animals like the loggerhead sea turtle and nurse shark.

“Like any exploitation of the natural world, if you take out more from the environment than is sustainable, then that environment and the ecosystem collapse,” – Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of The Seahorse Trust

5. It Could Be Illegal and You Could Face Fines

the importance of seashells

Thankfully, more and more countries make it illegal to take shells home with you.

Costa Rica, for example, prohibits the removal of any shells, and the Philippines has created a long list of ‘forbidden shells‘.

And a tourist was jailed for collecting seashells on a Florida beach.

A tip from José Leal, science director and curator at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum: do not collect shells from any protected species even if there is no living creature inside. The queen conch, for example, is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

He also advises never to collect shells in National Parks or protected lands.

It’s always better to research the rules and regulations of a particular country before you decide to take home a beachy souvenir. Or even better: take nothing but photos!

Yes, You Can Make a Difference and Help Protect Marine Life!

Like I’ve said, every shell can make a difference.

It reminds me of a story I like, titled The Star Thrower, by Loren Eisley. Here is a short version of it:

“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my writing work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me.

As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea.

When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die.

I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference.

He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.”

I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”

This also brings me to one other thing I need to mention: don’t take dead starfish, sea urchins, or dead coral either! They too serve a purpose inside the ocean’s ecosystems.

Tip: if you are interested in marine conservation and volunteering abroad, check out this volunteer project in the Philippines

Say No to Seashell Souvenirs

you shouldn't buy seashell souvenirs
seashell souvenirs in San Diego, California

I recently traveled to India. When I checked into my hotel, I was offered a lovely necklace made out of seashells. I felt conflicted. I didn’t want to be rude by refusing their gift. But I also didn’t want to support the seashell trade.

I eventually politely declined the necklace.

Don’t feel bad to say no! Saying ‘no’ to plastic straws has become the norm – why shouldn’t the same be true about collecting or accepting seashells?

Other Ways to Protect Marine Life

If you’ve been looking into how to save the oceans or how to protect marine life, you probably already know these tips.

But we can all use an extra reminder from time to time!

1. Use Less Plastic

We all know this one: we need to use less plastic!

Use a reusable water bottle and be conscious of how much plastic products contain, especially single-use plastic such as bags, wrappers, and containers.

2. Clean the Beach

Whether you make it a habit to pick up any trash you see when you’re on the beach or organize clean-up events, it all helps!

3. Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Even though studies say most sunscreen labeled as reef-safe can still do harm to marine life, it’s a step in the right direction.

Apply sunscreen long before you get into the water so it has time to be absorbed. An alternative for using sunscreen is wearing clothes (a rash guard, board shorts, wetsuit, etc.) to provide UV protection.

Bare Republic and Badger offer good quality reef-safe sunscreen.

4. Eat Sustainable Seafood

If you eat seafood, go for sustainable options. This means eating species that have a healthy population, and whose harvest minimizes bycatch and impacts on the environment.

This resource offers useful tips on how to shop for sustainable seafood. 

5. Never Release Balloons

Balloons look pretty, but they are a danger to wildlife such as sea turtles, who can accidentally swallow them, mistake them for food, or get tangled in their strings.

So please, enjoy balloons at your party. But at the end of the party, throw them in the trash instead of releasing them.

Don’t Buy or Take Seashells – Conclusion

I know, those few shells you decide not to take won’t save the planet. The same way those few plastic straws you decide not to use won’t save the planet. But it’s not just you. Together it adds up.

And it could just be your straw that ends up inside a turtle’s nose (remember that video??) and it could very well be that shell you decide to leave on the beach that becomes the perfect home for a hermit crab or the essential shelter for those baby fish…

So please, leave seashells where they belong and share this article to help make more people aware of how easily they can make a difference!

Also Read:


Special thanks to Sandra Parmee and H. Duff, the great journalists who helped me put this article together!


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2 pictures of seashells with the text 'Why you shouldn't buy seashells or take them from the beach'

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Author: Sanne Wesselman
A traveler, wanderer, digital nomad, and entrepreneur. I spend most of my time living and working abroad and visiting destinations all over the world. I use this website to share "the good, the bad and the ugly" of traveling and living abroad. Visit the About Me page for more info.

21 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Buy Seashells or Take Them From the Beach”

  1. Thank you for doing this research and sharing. I was hoping you could provide some guidance.
    Do you have to put the shell back at the beach you got it or can it go to any beach?
    If you purchased a shell should you give it back to the shop?

    • Hi Lisa,
      Those are very good questions! I’d say if you have the opportunity to take the shells back to the beach you got them from that would be best, but if not, they’d still be better off on any beach than at home as decoration.
      As for purchased shells, that’s trickier… I’m assuming you’re talking about nice looking, probably larger shells. If you’d put them on any beach most likely someone else would just take them. Giving them back to the shop would be an amazing opportunity to explain to the people in the shop why selling these shells is a problem, as probably they simply don’t know.

      • Well, opinions vary a little on sea glass. On one hand, sea glass is seen as litter. It’s broken, worn down pieces of glass. Therefore taking them from the beach is often seen as ok, and some would even say it helps cleaning up beaches. But, there are other people who’d tell you to be cautious. While taking a single piece of sea glass is pretty harmless, irresponsible collection of sea glass could be detrimental to the beach environment. It disrupts sand dunes and even sites for bird nesting. Excess removal of sea glass exposes the beach to erosion. It becomes easy for the sand to be washed away, and that affects the stability of the beach’s ecosystem.

        There are several beaches where it is illegal to take anything. And sea glass is particularly protected on some beaches, such as the popular Fort Bragg in California.

  2. An Interesting and very valid article. Let’s hope that the shells I don’t pick up won’t be collected by those behind me!

  3. The warming of our oceans and pollution has a far greater impact on marine mollusks than people collecting them either for souvenirs or for scientific collections.
    Do worry about pollution, plastics, global warming, hotels built near vital reef systems, dynamite fishing and deep water trawling.

    • Good points. Changing our own actions, in something as easy and optional as choice of souvenirs, is a great way to start reducing our impact. Better if we don’t stop there, though.

      I now take my holidays by visiting family or exploring my own area. (It is pretty amazing. Are there wonders and discoveries near you? I bet there are!)

      I eat lower on the food chain. I ask questions about the source of my food and other goods, and find I don’t really need much new stuff now.

      But I could do better. I don’t write letters often enough, for instance. If I politely but insistently asked awkward questions about policy, that might help shift my country’s climate impacts.

  4. When I was in school, the students were told to collect unique seashells, this was back in the 70’s. It was unfortunate that all the students took ourselves to the same beach.
    By the end of the weekend the beach was bare of all seashells.

  5. Hi,
    Thanks for the article.
    What should we do with collected shells?
    Will it do the environment any good to put them back on the shore or in the sea?

    • Hi Sabrina,
      Yes, I would say both on the shore and in the sea would be beneficial to the environment. They can then be used for shelter by crabs or fish. If they look pretty I would put them in the sea because otherwise others might just take them from the beach again…

      • It isn’t essential to put shells back on the same beach, though it would be nice.

        If a shell has sentimental or other value to us, we could also “pay” the beach back for it, with a return gift of bone, limestone, gravel, or other material that the beach uses. (Especially if this can be delivered without burning more fossil fuels, or transporting invasive species…)

        One of the most important roles of shells is to dissolve back into the sea water again. The calcium carbonate from this shell will be used over and over by other sea animals to build or repair their own bones and shells. (Extra CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere makes this harder now, by making calcium erode much faster in slightly more acidic water.)

        As an example of a way to find such a return gift, can you find a culvert where a seasonal stream (not fish-bearing!) drops clean sand and gravel? Is it within walking or biking distance of a beach? Is that shell really worth the trouble of paying for what we received?

        If so, I think we could then keep a shell in good conscience.

  6. Hi Barry,
    Thank you for your comment. I do agree that traveling can be very environmentally unfriendly and in no way did I mean to say not taking seashells is the only thing we should do to protect the environment.

    That being said, I live on a sailboat, so I mainly use the wind to travel. I don’t own a car, I mostly eat vegetarian or vegan, I don’t have kids, I use solar panels for electricity and do many other things in my daily life to try to protect the environment.

    And I know plenty of people who hardly ever travel yet have a large house, more than one car, and do more damage to the environment than I do as a traveler.

    In my opinion traveling can make you more aware of why it’s so important to care about the environment.

  7. Perhaps you should stop traveling around the world, that would probably save more of the environment than your views on sea shells.

  8. I didn’t know hermit crabs live in trash due to humans collecting the shells! I won’t collect any shells when I go to beaches.

  9. I love this article!!! All my adult life I have promoted the importance of shells and my kids know not to take shells from the beach for all the reasons listed and I just love that you have written this article and I love that someone is as passionate as I am about shells. 💕😊

    • Thanks Gaynor, it took me a long time to create this article and it’s definitely one of the articles I value most because I think it’s an important message to share. So I really appreciate your comment!! 🙂


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