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(News-Press.com) - Paleontologists studying a recreational beach in Spain say a threefold increase in tourism led to a corresponding loss in seashells and that shell collectors and other tourists are, in some cases, contributing to erosion and ecological damage.

Titled "Vanishing Clams on an Iberian Beach: Consequences and Global Implications of Accelerating Loss of Shells to Tourism," the study was funded by the University of Florida and the Spanish Science and Innovation Ministry and focused on the impact of tourism on seashells and the structural integrity of the beach over the course of 30 years.

Shell collecting, the report says, can lead to increased beach erosion and declines in the abundance and diversity of mollusks and wildlife that are dependent on shell availability. Impacts include trampling, vehicle use, camping, shell harvesting and beach grooming.

Beaches in other areas of the world may experience more impacts than the one observed in Spain, the report says, but what about Southwest Florida?

"Our beaches are primarily quartz sand and coming from older geological sources, so it's not as critical," said Steve Boutelle, operations manager for Lee County's natural resources department. "We certainly have shell fragments on our beaches but it's not our primary source of substrate."

Seashells are integral to Southwest Florida's economy and ecology, and Lee County leads the way in shoreline conservation — adopting the most stringent shell collecting rules in the state in 2013. And unlike the Spanish beach that was part of the tourism study, Southwest Florida's shoreline won't experience a shell shortage anytime soon.

To the center of shell

Lee County, particularly Sanibel Island, is considered the top shell collecting destination in North America. Shells are so popular here that the area has the Bailey-Mathews National Shell Museum, the Shell Factory, the Pink Shell Beach Resort and the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club, which held its 77th shell fair in March — the largest shell festival in the country. Lee County's $2.8 million summer marketing campaign is called "Saved by the Shell."

"Obviously shells are one of the things that draw people to our beaches, and have for a long time," Boutelle said. "Appreciating there is some limitation of that resource — especially where the tourists meet the mollusks — that's why Lee County adopted (no live shell harvesting) rules."

Indeed, collecting live shells along Lee shorelines is against state law. The county petitioned the state, which adopted the rule on behalf of the county in 2013. Collier County defers to state laws, which require anyone harvesting live shellfish to have a recreational saltwater fishing license, even when taking live shellfish from the beach.

"It was also an equity issue so that when the tourists come here everybody has a shot to find that leftover shell and have the opportunity to take that souvenir home with them," Boutelle said. "Most of the time somebody grabbed a live shell and it was beautiful and 48 hours later it smelled like the worst thing they've ever encountered and they want they throw it away. That's a waste of the resource."

Some shells here are actual treasure — Scaphella junonia shells, found locally, go for $30 to $80 apiece on eBay. Not only are local shells of high quality, the sheer abundance makes shell collecting easy.

"If you go to beaches around the world you may find the occasional shell," said Dorri Hipschman, executive director of the Bailey-Mathews National Museum. "On Sanibel we have piles."

The museum added National to its title recently to reflect the diversity of shell enthusiasts who browse its extensive collection, which contains somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000, Hipschman said.

Shells at the museum have come mostly from collections, and museum workers and volunteers are about one-third of the way done cataloging each shell in the building. For Hipschman and others at the museum, shells offer more than shiny trinkets from Mother Nature.

"For us, the importance of a shell is the data that goes along with it," Hipschman said. "Was it (collected) at high tide or low tide, date and time of day? So a shell that may not be important to collectors may be valuable to our research. Scientists now are studying shells to look at climate change and that can be done by looking at the calcium carbonate. Sometimes shells are the only record of changes."

Sanibel even touts its seashell expertise and talent: Jose Leal, curator and director of education at the Bailey-Matthews National Museum, is the opening speaker at Mollusca 2014, an international conference on seashells in Mexico City in June.

Feeding the beast

Lee County's shelling rule is listed under the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission guidelines, which adopted the rule at the county's request. Boutelle said a biological review conducted during the rule-making process suggested that seashell impacts from tourism were no cause for alarm.

"Most of the shells that we find along the beaches are a small percentage of the overall population of those organisms," Boutelle said. "Many of them live in deeper water, beyond areas where tourists are going to find them and pick them up and take them home. For us, locally, (the state) didn't see a live shell to be an issue. The tourists weren't impacting a big enough portion of the population to have an impact on those shells."

Beach renourishment projects add another dynamic to the shell craze. Most projects involve massive dredges anchored offshore that pump sand from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to places such as Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key State Park and Blind Pass.

Renourishments are continual in Lee and other counties as tropical systems and hurricanes chip away at beaches nearly every summer. Recently the state committed $47 million for the 2014-15 budget specifically for beach renourishment and monitoring projects. The projects focus on protecting property and providing a natural buffer against encroaching systems rather than providing collectibles to treasure-seeking tourists and locals: The new shells are just pretty byproducts.

A plethora of new sand to scour sometimes draws crowds, though, Boutelles said, as the offshore sand has not been picked over by previous enthusiasts. Renourishment projects at Lovers Key State Park and Bonita Beach are expected to start in July and run through September.

"What we see when we do a beach project is we have to manage the crowd," he said. "We will literally have people storming the pipeline, trying to get the shells that come out. We've literally had to call security because it's dangerous to be near the high-discharge pipeline."

BY THE NUMBERS

250,000 - Shells cataloged so far at the Bailey-Mathews National Museum

$35,000 - Priciest single shell on eBay

8,355 - Number of species within Bailey-Mathews collection

350 - Estimated species of shell-making organisms in Southwest Florida

30 - Inches in length measured for the world record Australian trumpet

Sources: seashellworld.com, Bailey-Matthews National Museum, eBay

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