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Clamping down on picking up live seashells : Florida beachfront community sees a scarcity, proposes banning collecting of such shells. A critic calls the law 'screwy, extreme.'

November 10, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — More than a million visitors a year are drawn to this tiny, tranquil island off Florida's southwest coast, and rarely do any of them leave without a few souvenir seashells. Indeed, this barrier island jutting into the Gulf of Mexico has a reputation as one of the world's shelling hot spots, where even a novice beachcomber might find a calico scallop or a fighting conch.

But take it from Rita Groh, the shelling on Sanibel is not what it once was.

"I haven't seen anything rare on the beach for the last five years," says Groh, who with her husband moved here from Greenwich, Conn., in 1972. "The shells made us famous. But I wonder: If there aren't any shells here, will the tourists still come?"

Alarmed by an apparent decline in the number of shells that wash up on the beaches here--and haunted by questions like Groh's--city officials have taken action. A law that bans the collecting of any live shells from Sanibel's nine-mile beachfront has been approved by the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Lawton Chiles, effective Jan. 1.

The ban on taking live shells is believed to be the first such law in the United States, and tightens a county-wide restriction that limits collectors to two live shells per species per day. No one has ever been prosecuted under that 1987 statute, however, and in fact the law is considered unenforceable.

But Sanibel's proposed ban isn't. "We're not going to be walking the beaches and inspecting kids' buckets," said Rob Loflin, the city's natural resources director. "But we see some real wasteful practices out there, people taking massive quantities of shells. So our police would enforce this rule."

On a laid-back island known for its broad, sugar-sand beaches and a sea so calm that only a hurricane can make it roar, the live-shelling law has stirred a storm of emotion.

R. Tucker Abbott, a former Smithsonian Institution conchologist and expert on the 275 varieties of mollusks found in the waters near here, ridicules the law as "screwy, extreme." He says the ban is being promoted by "people who are fanatical modern ecologists, the kind for whom conservation becomes a religion. They make their decisions on emotion."

Abbott, director of a shell museum scheduled to open next year here, says the Gulf waters are rich with mollusks, which thrive along an 80-mile-wide band of continental shelf paralleling the Florida coast. "There is an impression that there are fewer shells today," Abbott said. "That may be true for the first 100 yards out."

Commercial shellers, who dredge the ocean for whelks, cockle shells and sand dollars for sale to gift shops, also oppose the law.

Supporters of the live shelling ban concede that the law is as much symbolic as it is efficacious. "There is not a lot of biological information," says Lee Schlesinger, a spokesman for the Marine Fisheries Commission. "But we are erring on the side of conservation. We have a valuable resource that is still healthy and abundant, and we want to keep it that way."

Conservationist Bob Slayton of the local Audubon Society says he hopes the law will instill a respect for marine wildlife among those who haul away trash bags full of shells that end up as borders around flower beds, in the base of a table lamp, or in the attic.

"I think people who pick up live shells and take them home are no different from those who shoot wild animals and hang their heads on the wall," said Slayton, a physician. "They're trophy hunters."

The beaches of Sanibel, the neighboring island of Captiva or anywhere along Florida's west coast are not short of shells. Millions of dead mollusks wash up daily, and the sight of scores of people performing what here is called the "Sanibel stoop"--a beachcomber bent at the waist and reaching for a colorful treasure in the sand--is familiar testament to the allure of one of nature's most fascinating animals.

But despite an abundance of empty shells, collectors often prefer live mollusks, with shells richer in color and less likely to be damaged. Many resorts here, in fact, seem to encourage live shelling by providing guests with facilities to boil mollusks to kill the animal inside.

Loflin says the ban on live shelling should have no effect on tourism here. "Surveys indicate that 85% of residents and tourists support the law," he said.

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