Green Crafter Ethics: Is it Okay to Collect Seashells?

Bucket full of seashells collected on Sanibel IslandMy girls and I are in Florida this week, and one of the things that we’re having the most fun doing here (other than getting our nerd on with NASA) is collecting seashells.

Waist deep in the ocean, my daughters floating in inner tubes next to me, I felt on the sand below my feet what could only be a giant seashell. I don’t dunk my head under water on purpose, but I am pretty dexterous with my toes, so it wasn’t long before I’d snagged the shell and hauled it up for my daughters to look at, only to find a GIGANTIC hermit crab looking back at us, waving its hermit crab claws. Girlish squeals ensued.

You and I wouldn’t dream, I don’t think, of taking home a seashell in which a hermit crab or mollusk or other living creature already resided, no more than we’d dream of prying a living starfish off a rock and gluing it to the latest craft project. Would you buy a dead starfish in a gift shop by the ocean, however, and put some hot glue on that?

Would you buy a gorgeous conch shell, from a bin of hundreds in that same gift shop?

Okay, but what if you found that conch shell washed up onto the beach at low tide? Is it okay to keep it then, or do you need to leave it there in case a hermit crab in need of a new home wanders by?

beach full of seshells on Sanibel Island, FloridaSeashell collectors who collect their shells for display or as a hobby do pick up what are called “living shells,” which are shells that contain critters. They claim that “dead shells” deteriorate quickly, and so live collecting is the only way to ensure the best specimens.

I’m not in charge of what other shell collectors do, but I am confident that, in collecting seashells to use for craft projects, my need for perfection isn’t so extreme that I’m yanking little hermit crabs out of their homes.

In my research, I haven’t found any sources that claim that tourists collecting empty shells from beaches pose a threat to the habitat of the hermit crab, so I do collect empty shells. I also collect as many bivalve shells as I feel like, and dead sand dollars washed up onto the sand whenever I find them, and even, once, a piece of coral I found I can’t even tell you how many thousands of miles away from the closest reef.

Of course, it’s very rare to find a gigantic perfect shell washed up by the tide, and those stores by the beach that sell seashells by the bin are especially tempting to my little girls, who are studying seashells in our homeschool right now and thus fancy themselves expert collectors.

To my daughters’ great outrage, however, I have flatly forbidden buying shells from these stores. I painted a picture for them of big nets in the ocean, dragging up all the ocean creatures out of their homes and killing them so that tourists could buy their shells, and reminded them of the starfish that they petted in the touch tank at a museum here. We do, however, have tons of great seashells at home, passed down from my grandmother, who certainly had no ethical qualms against the beachside tourist shops, and this turned out to be an ethical way for us, at least, to form a good collection.

If you have no shell-collecting grandma of your own, thrift stores and garage sales are an excellent outlet–I was once given several bags of shells at the end of a tag sale, all in boxes labelled with the date and location from which they’d been collected. If I had the money for it, I’d also shop in the kind up upscale shops in which the shop owners can tell you the origin of every one of their one-of-a-kind items, or I’d buy from shop owners on Etsy or eBay who could also make me feel comfortable about their collecting practices.

I dropped that hermit crab back in the ocean after it waved one of its claws menacingly at me, and later, when my older daughter found a perfect shell on the beach, just a little larger than that crab, she tossed it in after him so that he’d have a home to grow into, so quickly that I didn’t have time for greedy second thoughts about what a nice shell it was. It turns out that she’s a more ethical seashell collector than I am, after all!

9 thoughts on “Green Crafter Ethics: Is it Okay to Collect Seashells?”

  1. I live by the Pacific Ocean where there used to be tons of shells for everyone to enjoy. Now we are lucky to find a few. It is illegal to remove the shells from the beach as they are considered part of the natural environment. It’s like picking flowers in the State and National Park. But an alternative is to collect the sea-glass. Blue glass is considered a gem. good luck hunting

  2. I used to live by the ocean, where all the beaches were parkland, we we got used to never bringing any shells home, particularly the ones that might be the next home for a hermit crab. I would just forego crafts that needed shells, or fashion the shells out of something else (homemade play dough?) that had not been taken out of the marine ecosystem.

  3. In Thailand they do indicate that taking the shells off the beach is illegal… BUT there are lots of shells for sale in Rawai Phuket BUT they say that they are from Indonesia – so it’s okay?

    The shells are homes and is the sand for tomorrow – do you want your grand children to build a sandcastle with you?

  4. I am a hermit crab owner looking for hermit crab shells for my crabs. I need shells that were NOT harvested, are NOT glazed or painted, and are naturally found.

    If you know of a place from where I can purchase these, I will be a customer forever. Literally forever.


  5. As a native Floridian, I have lived surrounded by ocean and seashells my entire life. I am very protective of the environment and have a tough time killing anything, even a bug. However, at times we tend to take things too far and become overly protective. Seashells are abundant, especially here in Florida, and as an artist, seashells, sea stones, driftwood and sand are all part of the materials I use in my artwork. I can always buy the materials commercially and pass the cost onto the customer, or I can simply pick what I need from the multitude of beaches I have access to and save the customer a buck or even add to my bottom line. Yes, I love making my art, but I too have to pay bills and make a living, albeit not a lucrative one.

    As to what I pick from the beach, nothing comes into my shop that is alive. If I find any seashells with residents in it, I place them back in the water. I don’t even put them back on the dry shore where I found them, I send them back to the sea. I have made exceptions with oyster/clam clusters where at times you will get some live slugs, but hey, some of those are edible. So, if you go to the beach and want to bring home seashells, go for it as long as they are empty shells.

    Lastly, to the issue of not finding seashells in places that once had abundance of them. Beaches, at least here in Florida, erode. When that happens, the state replenishes the beaches with new sand and the seashells are basically covered up. If you go to any beach in Florida that has had erosion issues, chances are there won’t be that many seashells on shore. Go to Sanibel Island, and you’ll literally be walking on a carpet of seashells. If you don’t pick up the shell you like, they’ll simply be crushed by folks walking on them. Pick up what you like, protect the living critters, and enjoy your shelling and the wonderful crafts that come from them. The seashells will forever live in your art and crafts.

  6. Actually, It’s illegal to collect live shell from Lee and other various counties. Nothing live can be taken from the water, including shells, sea stars, sanddollars and urchins. The only thing you can take would be fish or lobster, and you have to have a saltwater fishing license in order to keep any fish, and it must be in season and a certain limit. I believe it is a misdemeanor to harvest live shells. You can check out the info at for rules and regulations.

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