Mom picked it up and held it up to the light. It was inhabited, and we could see the conch's claw. We put it back where an occasional wave would wash over it. The prettiest shells we found had creatures in them. Many were conches, but some of the shells had been claimed by hermit crabs. We didn't take any of the ones that were alive, but we saw other people carelessly collecting them. One lady had two grocery bags filled with large, colorful shells. Although the signs along the boardwalk read "No Live Shelling," several people were ignoring that rule.
On many beaches, collecting live animals is illegal. For instance, Washington State has banned the taking of any invertebrate, and in most national parks it is illegal to take anything. In addition to wanting the shells, people get them for food and bait, or as pets for their home aquariums. However, even in places where there are no laws preventing this collection, it is a bad idea. Not only does it harm the individual animal, but overharvesting of a species can lead to a decline in its population, making it endangered or even extinct. When this happens, the natural balance is also upset, because the creatures that relied on the animal for food or used the shells as shelter are no longer able to find them.
Buying shells commercially is not environmentally-friendly. Many companies catch live shellfish, which are killed for their meat, their shells, or both. Live sand dollars and sea stars are also captured and sold. Because they are caught in such huge numbers, many rare species are threatened by this practice.
One example is the Queen Conch. Its shells are used as jewelery or decorations and its meat is eaten or used as bait. They were captured so extensively that their numbers declined. Although they are not officially endangered, many Caribbean countries are trying to conserve the conches living near their shores and have agreed not to export them until the populations have stabilized.
The critically endangered Black Abalone is another animal which has been depleted by the meat and shell industry. They were once plentiful along the Pacific coast, from California to Mexico. Its meat was more popular than its small, smooth shell. At the time they were being harvested, there were no rules about protecting an individual species. After the California fishery had run out of one species of abalone, they would switch to another. Withering syndrome, a disease, also decreased the numbers. Today, hunting these mollusks is illegal, although some poaching occurs.
Collecting empty shells at the beach is harmless, except in parks where removing anything is illegal. Just make sure they are empty before you take them!