She(‘)ll be Fined…

There’ll be no more terrible puns from here on in!

Let’s talk about shells. They’re pretty right? They come in all shapes and sizes, and in some you can even hear the ocean! Clearly, this means they belong around your neck, or as a perfect addition to your bathroom correct? WROOONG. In a world where climate change is already the biggest threat to life on earth for this and many generations to come. It is important to do everything we can to combat the damage already done by human activity, and this includes leaving shells in the ocean! Surprising I know, but let me explain why.

Firstly let’s talk about endangered species. We all know about charismatic megafauna; your polar bears, sharks, pandas, blue whales, dugongs, tigers and what have you. However, the damaging actions of us humans know no bounds and have reached the critters that call shells their home. As of September 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 581 critically endangered mollusc species, and 11 subspecies, including 117 which are tagged as possibly extinct. Not only that but there are 511 species and 6 subspecies of gastropod assessed as critically endangered. Molluscs are invertebrates of a large phylum that includes snails, mussels, oysters, octopus and squid. Gastropods are a large class of mollusc which includes whelks. Simply put, all gastropods are molluscs but not all molluscs are gastropods.

What does all of this mean for you? Well, it’s classic supply and demand! If you buy a pretty shell for jewellery or decoration, this shows a demand and therefore encourages people to go and kill more marine life for their shells to supply the increase in demand. This is not as easy a problem to solve as you might think. Here in Panglao my comments have been met with stubborn yet funny remarks by charismatic chaps just trying to make a living. They really don’t care about laws or indeed, their safety. The last time we visited a shell seller, for a photo, I explained some simple ecology of the textile cone shell (circled 1). “If you pick up this animal while it is alive, it has a venom strong enough to kill you in minutes” I said. This was met with a hearty laugh and a comment that he knew this already. We tried a different tactic: “If I was to try to take these 3 shells (circled 2; one of which is the beautiful Nautilus – not how I pictured seeing my first one!) out of the Philippines, I would be fined PHP120,000 and/or thrown in jail for 20 years”. Again this was met with a laugh and the cheeky comment of “no, only one of the shells sir” well that’s okay then!

“Well Daniel, I won’t buy shells anymore I’ll just take them straight outta the ocean for free!” I hear you cry, and with rather a smug face I might add. But whoa now, hold your horses. I knew you were going to say that and lucky for you I’m still here to be your personal ‘Debbie-Downer’. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it. OCEAN ACIDIFICATION! Part of such a big problem, the phrase needs to be shouted. If you’re sick of hearing about it, that means it’s probably time to do something about it.

The world’s oceans and seas are naturally alkaline. This is due to the salt and mineral content of the water. Now, because of increased levels of atmospheric CO2, the pH of the oceans is being pushed away from it’s natural alkalinity towards neutral (pH 7). This may not seem like a problem, but it is. Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. In 2013 the level surpassed 400ppm for the first time in recorded history. However, without our oceans these terrifying figures would be much worse. 25% of atmospheric CO2 is absorbed and stored by our oceans and marine ecosystems.

Shells play an important role in combating this problem as well. They are made out of calcium carbonate, the same ‘salt’ that makes up a coral’s exoskeleton. When shells break down and erode due to wave action, this essential calcium carbonate can be reused by corals, to help them remain strong and resilient in a time when threats to their existence are around every corner. It is a natural cycle that should not be broken, but we humans seem to be experts in these sorts of thing. I’d say its time to change! Every ecosystem is linked and coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds are no different. Each play a vital role in carbon sequestration (storage), a key weapon in the fight against climate change and ocean acidification.

So next time you think about buying a shell or taking them on a dive or from the beach remember they are much too important to remove from their home. Not to mention you could be robbing a future home from an adorable hermit crab!

Ps. As a final note I think I need to reassure people that I am having an amazing time in the Philippines, I just love a good moan. Also, I’d like to say RIP Chester Bennington. Your excellent music has helped me plough through; 1) this blog post, and 2) the difficult times of my childhood. Legend.

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