You Might Want to Think Twice Before Buying a Seashell Souvenir

CC BY 2.0. Nikita -- A seashell souvenir stand in Kamares, Greece

Do you really know where it comes from?

Seashells have allured humans for time immemorial. These swirling, marbled wonders from the sea are unlike anything we find on land, and for that reason they have always been gathered and treasured. Unfortunately, as National Geographic explains in an eye-opening article about the seashell trade, there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than you may think when selecting a pretty shell from a souvenir stand in the tropics.

The first thing that many people assume incorrectly is that seashells are collected from beaches. That idyllic image is shattered by photos taken by Amey Bansod, a graduate student who was researching the work of shell artisans in India. Bansod discovered warehouses full of seashells that had been harvested from the sea. A worker at one facility said it processes between 30 and 100 tonnes of shells per month -- and it's only one of several such facilities along the Indian coast.

Preparing shells for sale is a cruel process. As National Geographic explains, the shells -- which contain living animals at time of harvest -- are dried in the sun, dunked in vats of oil and acid to clean any flesh, then hand-scraped and oiled by artisans to develop an alluring sheen. These shells are sold as knickknacks or used to make jewelry.

Shell processing is common in India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Very few species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the global wildlife trade. But even when a species is protected, such as the queen conch or the chambered nautilus, it is a hard thing to monitor.

queen conch shell

Dr. Mary Gilham -- A living queen conch in the Caribbean /CC BY 2.0

According to Alejandra Goyenechea, senior international counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, "identifying mollusk species is one of the toughest challenges in policing the international trade in seashells." Adding to the problem is the fact that in Europe, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, "shells have the same species or genus customs codes as coral and other mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms."

Is there an effective way to stop this harmful trade?

Bansod said he tried for years to convince Indian shell artisans to make glass-blown, sea-inspired shapes instead, but this idea never caught on. Nor are governments terribly interested in shells; for some reason they are deemed less worthy of official protection than grand species like tigers, elephants, and lions. Change, therefore, must be driven by consumers, who become aware of the problem and refuse to buy seashells as trinkets and jewelry, recognizing shells as wildlife that does not belong around our necks or on our fireplace mantels.