In 1973, when Melissa Green was 12 years old, her parents bought their first beach apartment in a new complex along the Atlantic coast in southeast Florida, on Hutchinson Island.
The first time the family’s children ran to the beach, they were shocked at how different it was from their previous beach trips to Daytona, which was crowded with people and cars. In Hutchinson, seashells were the main attraction.
Every time the tide comes in, a long string of shells are left from all kinds of sea snails, including queen snails and droplets, some the size of Greene’s hand. Along the shore, among a forest of driftwood, lay more shells, along with starfish, crabs, and many egg cartons.
Greene and her family will soon celebrate 50 years of ownership of the 1,200-family Ocean Village apartment. Today, on the beach itself, you can rarely find large, intact shells, which she saw so often in her youth.
“The difference is huge,” she says. Sometimes sea creatures or a few shells wash up on the beach in strong winds, “but you’ll never see those big, full-shell mountains at least one euro in size, as we’ve found for years.”
Seashells have always been one of the most impressive things in nature. They still guarantee surprise and awe during a day at the beach, but they also reflect the major changes taking place along our coasts.
From abalone along the West Coast of the United States to rings along the East Coast, the populations of some of the largest and most famous marine mollusks (architects who build seashells from calcium carbonate in seawater) have declined due to fishing. In addition, high temperature and acidification of water have a significant impact, as well as pollution and drainage from the land. In addition, marine slugs sometimes suffer severe erosion from bays and piers – an ongoing problem on Hutchinson Island – and from efforts to restore shattered beaches by recovering lost sand.
But marine mollusks, which have survived changes that occurred on Earth for 500 million years, have also proven to be an example of resilience and our ability to repair damage, says George Buckley of the Boston Malacholic Club. Before the US Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972, Buckley, the young club president, watched beloved mollusks and seashells disappear into industrial drains and sewage from the Boston Harbor Islands. Today, “mollusks can be found again,” he says. “And you will find the shells again.”
Fishermen (and tourists) against slugs
On beaches where the most tourists are, more people often mean fewer shells. “It’s not usually about the shells that people collect, but about the major consequences of mass tourism,” says paleontologist Michael Kowalski of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Tourism on a large scale means more boats, more maintenance on the beaches and more equipment. It all affects the coast.
Just as many suburbs tend to meticulously decorated lawns, many beachgoers prefer immaculately sanded sand. For such equipped beaches, heavy machinery should be used, which “ignite” the sand with sharp points. As plastic, cigarette butts, and other human-left debris is sifted out of the sand, sea creatures, shells, and driftwood are also discarded.
Florida only uses limited equipment to clean beaches during the breeding season for endangered sea turtles. But mollusks and other invertebrates get less attention (or research money) than sea turtles with their large, sensitive eyes that aren’t on legs. According to ecologists, the IUCN Red List (which officially records the alarming decline in animals worldwide) seriously underestimates the decline in invertebrates, which are estimated to account for 97 percent of the world’s population, all living things.
Because the money is available for animals of commercial importance, scientists know more about the mollusks that humans eat. For the Busycotypus canaliculatus and Busycon carica snails, which are found in great numbers on beaches from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral, a multimillion-dollar fishing industry took off faster than passing regulations. According to researchers, female snails are captured before they can give birth to offspring.
The same is true of Triplofusus giganteus, or “horse conch,” which builds the largest shells in the northern hemisphere. The size of the spiral-shaped shells can reach 60 cm. It was this sheer size that made them the official cover of Florida in 1969. But shells of the size they appear in old beach photos no longer exist. According to researchers, a century of unregulated gathering has made it an endangered species.
Pink wing pods, which build shiny, football-sized pink shells and live more in the south, are so characteristic of the Florida Keys that people born on these islands are also called “conch.” But the numbers of these mollusks began to decline in the middle of the twentieth century and never recovered, despite the ban on commercial hunting of these animals since 1975, and the blanket ban on their collection since 1986. At the same time, their numbers are also declining. in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Scientists warn that the huge quantities of shells in the Bahamas (where much of the snail meat consumed in the United States comes from) is now depleted below the minimum number of animals for the species to survive.