There is a beautiful quote I once read, “Kill nothing but Time, Leave nothing but Footprints, Take nothing but Pictures, Keep nothing but Memories”
We have all done it, myself included; leisurely strolling down the beach and nonchalantly picking up a shell or two or three to bring home and mount on your bookshelf as a keepsake. A few weeks ago friends of mine were posting photos on Facebook of beautiful seashells they had collected off the beach in front of their home here in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. As stunning as the shells were, I noticed they had collected a staggering amount of them, over twenty. It made me think a bit and raised a number of questions … so I began doing some research:
What role do seashells play in the ecosystem?
Seashells play a large role in the coastal ecosystems for numerous reasons:
- The shells provide materials for indigenous birds to build nests. When the nests break down, they provide nutrients for the organisms living in the sand or for those that build their own shells.
- The shells serve as dwelling for an abundant number of micro-organisms such as seagrass, algae, and sponges
- Hermit crabs and many species of fish use shells as a protective shelter to hide from predators and are used as a temporary home … until they upgrade of course
- Help stabilize the beach and anchor seagrass
- Seashells play a large role in protecting the beaches from erosion. Particularly here in the Mexican Caribbean where the beach is made up of white talcum powder sand. The sand is made up of tiny fragments of shells that are broken off by the waves during storms and windy days. These shells are one of the reasons the sand is white and resistant to the sun’s heat, which allows walking without sandals and laying on the sand possible which ironically one of the largest draws to tourists.
How many tourists, expats, and local businesses were doing the same thing?
- With over 17 million people visiting Cancun and the Rivera Maya per year and this rate increasing 24% annually we could see the beaches directly impacted. For example, if each tourist took just 3 shells back home as souvenirs that would amount to a staggering 51 million shells per year. When you look at the number per person it doesn’t seem so bad but cumulatively it’s a daunting statistic.
How could this potentially impact our beautiful beaches?
- Exotic and coastal locations have become some of the most popular and highly visited vacation destinations in the world. A study was conducted in Llarga Beach, Spain’s northeastern Mediterranean shoreline between 1978 and 1981 revealing the impact tourism had on the beach. Three decades later the researchers returned to the same beach and discovered there had been a direct correlation between the rise in tourism (300% increase) and the decline in seashells (60%). Granted it is thought that the grooming of the beach with machinery may have played a big factor in the decline of the shells.
What ramifications may lie ahead if this consumption continued?
- The outlook could be a grim one if we don’t start thinking twice about collecting shells as personal mementos. We could potentially see the environmental implications and how the beaches, reefs and surrounding ecosystems will be impacted within the next decade. The beaches will recede and with an accelerated rate of shoreline erosion, our world renowned beaches won’t be what they once were; tourism numbers will diminish. A decline in calcium carbonate from recycled shells will take effect and we will see a drop in diversity and abundance of plants and animals that depend on shells. Birds and small animals will migrate to more favorable environments which would have a compound affect and disrupt the ecological balance of the surrounding ecosystems. Though, no studies have been conducted on the long-term effects that may occur, we can undoubtedly see the correlation between seashells and a healthy beach.
It’s my belief that education is the key to success and awareness can promote small changes in our lifestyle which collectively can lead to tremendous change.
Our individual efforts play a significant role in the big picture and global change. Sustainable tourism and littering is a perfect example of this (which will be on our next blog). If we all do our part and stick to the motto above, we will be able to sustain growth. Not only will we be able to enjoy and take part in the beauty and essence the Riviera Maya possesses but so will our children and our children’s children.
“We inherited a beautiful planet from our ancestors, now it is our time to leave it in the best shape possible for the generations to come.” – Utsah Shrestha
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