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Florida Seashell Capital may see more shells, less wildlife after Ian

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  • Storms in general usually bring in an excess of shells – so Sanibel, the “seashell capital of the world,” could possibly see more shells due to Ian’s impacts.
  • But the presence of excess shells could mean a lot of the wildlife has been harmed.
  • One expert details how hurricanes can negatively impact marine life for the long-term – with mollusks, shell makers and oyster reefs among those that are hit hard.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Despite Hurricane Ian’s wrath on the famous Florida island, Sanibel may continue to be the place for seashells by the seashore, but the storm’s effects could still cause a grim situation for the marine ecosystem.

Following Ian’s Sept. 28 hit, some have wondered what the storm’s 155 mph winds and 12-foot storm surge would have on its Sanibel and its decorated coastline. 

Thousands travel to the “seashell capital of the world” every year, hoping to get a glimpse of the more than 250 types of seashells littering its 15 miles of beaches. 

Experts note that storms usually bring in an excess of seashells. At the same time, this might signal devastating impacts on wildlife.

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More shells after Hurricane Ian

According to beach expert Stephen Leatherman, residents and shell seekers might not have to fret about Ian ruining Sanibel’s reputation for being the top spot for seashell spotting.

He said storms in general usually bring in an excess of shells, adding Sanibel could see possibly more shells due to the storm surge coming in, carrying sand and shells to scatter beyond its beaches and throughout the entire island.

“It may reduce it some,” Leatherman said. “But normally I would think it’s going to still be good … I feel like the Sanibel will still have its national reputation as the top shelling beach in the nation.”

As for why the barrier island sees more shells on its beaches compared to others around the county, here’s the answer: it’s one of the very few islands in Florida that run perpendicular, which causes ocean currents to have the beaches primarily flush water downward. 

Nationwide: 10 great places to look for seashells  

Just offshore where the water isn’t clear, Leatherman says Sanibel has an area, similar to a sandbar called a ground level swell, that forms and pushes shells to its beaches mostly intact.

Ian’s effects on wildlife  

While the seemingly special oversupply of shells on the beaches after Ian might seem like a much-needed positive, it could point signal much darker storm approaching.

José H. Leal, science director and curator at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on the island, said the presence of excess shells could mean a lot of the wildlife has been harmed.

“If you’re looking for shells for your collection, for the little moment there, you will be happy and all but we have to look with a bird’s eye view of the situation, that those shells are there because they were affected by the storm,” Leal said.

He details how hurricanes can negatively impact marine life for the long-term, pointing out specific examples of hard-hit marine populations, such as mollusks, microscopic plants and animals, shell makers, oyster reefs and bivalves.

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According to research he’s gathered, hurricanes generate high waves, rough currents, and shifting sand, all of which may harm sea life. These waves can reach as high as 60 feet – combining to make colder, saltier water and disturbing areas where there isn’t too much commotion.

“Resulting currents can extend as far as 300 feet below the surface, causing much harm to marine life in general,” Leal elaborates.

This excess rainwater changes the salinity of coastal waters, the deposition of fine sands and mud affecting several marine invertebrates, who Leal says live in specific ranges.

He said the presence of excess sediments in coastal waters will prevent growth of microscopic algae following a hurricane, which are the food of filter-feeding mollusks such as oysters, mussels, and clams.

Other impacts will include wildlife, such as dolphins, sharks and other fish evacuating the area after detecting changes in barometric pressure ahead of an approaching hurricane.

Did sharks leave Florida waters during Ian? Experts discuss hurricanes’ impact on wildlife  

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“Studies done by the University of Miami and other Florida research groups show that several species of shallow-water sharks will move away from an approaching storm a day or two before it makes landfall,” Leal said. “But slow-moving (or non-moving) animals such as mollusks just can’t do that and will be strongly affected.”

Lastly, man-made structures are also impacting the wildlife post-Ian, which he says may leak fuels, oil, battery acids, and other chemicals into coastal waters.

Recovery will happen but will take years

Around this time of year, Leal said they usually brace for the worst with each coming storm.

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum itself sustained 5 feet of flooding, significant wind damage to the roof and loss of generators during Ian, which resulted in only 25% of their marine life surviving the rescue.  

Fortunately, none of the 550,000 shells in their collection were damaged. The team transported 30% from the third floor storage to the second floor where over 500 shells are normally displayed.

More: Here’s how you can help those affected by Hurricane Ian in Florida  

There’s no timeline set on the museum’s rebuild but employees have been thankful for the support both locally and around the globe.

In terms of the island, Leal said its recovery will happen, though it may take a while for it to happen. He says in the meantime, he hopes the lost populations will recover to their pre-storm levels, adding sometimes different species replace some of the ones found pre-hurricane.

“One thing to keep in mind is that those species, they’ve been there for thousands, if not millions of years … and to some extent today, in the long run, they’ll be able to come back,” Leal said.

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