December 13, 2010

Please spread the word.

As promised, I am writing a follow up post about the sale of sea shells not so close to the Indian Ocean sea shore in downtown Ukraine

I will begin with a loosely related passage from an exceptional book that I just finished reading Emergency Sex:

In Mombasa, Heidi meets James, a Masai “tribesman”. Following a romantic walk down the beach, she happens to notice that she is one of several solitary white women, all fairly young and attractive, with their own Masai tribesman. She casually remarks to herself, “Great, now I have turned into one of those rich white chicks who pick up poor, attractive men in third world countries for sex.”

In what appears to be a typical romantic ploy, James leads her onto a dhow, and following a short ride, they land directly onto a reef that she describes as filled with puddles that hold the most magnificent sea creatures – anemones, urchins, and starfish – with splashes of bright, living color everywhere – purple, red, blue, yellow – just lying about in shallow pools of water, waiting for the tide to come in and rescue them.

Tropical paradise at its finest, so it seems. Except that, the "curio trade" threatens to render this image obsolete. Borrowing from the "authority" in this area, I will explain.

The sale of shells and other organisms, mostly to tourists or shell collectors, is known as the curio trade. Shell collecting is a hobby with a long history. By the 17th century, seamen on trading ships were bringing home shells as curio. In the last 50 years, with increasing possibilities to travel, the purchase of shells has become a common practice for visitors returning home with samples of the bizarre and attractive sea life from remote corners of the world.

Throughout the Western Indian Ocean (and apparently Ukraine), road-side shell stands and shops are common, retailing mostly large, attractive and colorful gastropod shells, chunks of hard coral, turtle products or jewelry made from these. The business may not appear to be very large but the sheer volume of shells and other marine curios (that is to say, interesting and bizarre dead sea creatures) sold is staggering. The collection and export of shells and other marine curios is mostly unregulated, but indications are that hundreds of tones of cleaned shells have been exported over the last thirty years.

This practice holds damaging environmental consequences. The damage to shallow coastal habitats caused by turning over boulders or prizing coral off the seabed may have considerable local impact on the productivity of the area. The trade in dead coral and turtle products is banned in many countries outside of the Western Indian Ocean and tourists carrying these items back home run the risk of being fined and having the articles confiscated. The removal of these animals not only reduces the productivity of shallow coastal habitats but also the attractiveness of the habitats to tourists.

However, the book further warns, even collecting empty shells can be damaging for two reasons. Firstly, hermit crabs need gastropod shells. Without empty shells, hermit crabs may totally disappear from an area. The second reason is that empty shells serve as a hard substrate and are a vital component of the overall growth of the coral reef. Many organisms (corals and sponges) settle onto such hard surfaces. Collecting is therefore NOT RECOMMENDED, unless this activity is pursued to establish a properly identified and cataloged collection of shells, which will be available to specialists, and thus add to the knowledge of mollusks in an area.

While measures have been taken to restrict the collection of shells, for example by enforcing regulations banning collection inside marine protected areas (as a side note: Kenya's effective use of regulations stands in contrast to Tanzania; it is said that weak enforcement inside marine protected areas combined with loose enforcement of bans against dynamite fishing in Tanzania, make the reef a startling and defacto aqua "border" between the two countries), the general recommendation is to limit the sale and import of shells. Until there is a system of management which ensures the collection of species sold is not depleting the wild stocks or interfering with the balance of life in the shallow marine habitats of the region, these activities should not be encouraged.

DO NOT BUY CORALS OR OTHER CURIOS. Please spread the word.

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