Feds Confiscate Shells Leaving Territory in “Judgement Call”

Federal Agents are seizing shells from travelers at Cyril E. King Airport to protect the Virgin Islands ecosystem. Conch shells are often re-used by other marine animals like the conch crab, above, found at Maho Bay beach.

For numerous visitors to St. John, the ideal souvenir to take back to the mainland is one of the beautiful shells which can be found at beaches around St. John — inside of the V.I. National Park (VINP) where it is illegal to take anything — and outside of the park.

The dream ends suddenly, however, when tourists try to take these mementoes home with them and the shells are confiscated arbitrarily by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at Cyril King Airport on St. Thomas.

Not Against Federal Laws
Transporting shells from the U.S.V.I. to the mainland does not break any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) laws—as long as the shells are not taken from the VINP, according to Sandra Cleva, a USFWS spokesperson.

“The movement of wildlife — and shells are considered wildlife — from the V.I. is not considered an import,” she said. “It would be a federal crime if you collected something illegally from the V.I. But, if it’s legally acquired in the V.I., there should be no problem.”


Sea biscuit

So, why are these shells still being confiscated?

Judgement Call by Officers
The issue amounts to a judgement call, according to CBP spokesperson John Mohan.

“Our officers are charged with enforcing the laws which are basically from the USFWS and are aimed at preventing harm to the ecosystem,” Mohan said. “If an officer is presented with shells, it is often an indeterminable place where the shell originated from.”

“Essentially, it is difficult for an officer to tell whether or not that shell originally came from a coral reef,” Mohan added. CBP officers enforce laws to protect the natural local ecosystem, and coral reefs are a part of that ecosystem, Mohan explained.

“The idea is that to interfere with the coral reef is to interfere with the ecosystem,” he said. “The aim of the law that we enforce is to prevent that.”

Shells which were obviously treated or processed are usually not confiscated, according to Mohan.

“Sometimes you see bags of shells that are processed or shellacked,” he said. “They are clearly, obviously prepackaged. They are easier to determine that they didn’t come from a coral reef.”

Enforcing the law usually comes down to an individual officer’s judgement, Mohan continued.

“It is a judgement call on an individual basis for our officers to be able to know where it came from,” he said. “They will err on the side of caution so as to protect the ecosystem—protect the coral reef and the species’ areas.”


Sea urchin

“Our officers are charged with making a determination,” Mohan explained. “It is important to protect the ecosystem there. We have to err on the side of caution.”’

Usually tourists think they are the only ones taking one or two shells from an area, and don’t see how their actions could potentially decimate an area, explained Mohan.

“Although individuals will say that on a one-by-one basis they think, ‘It’s just me,’ that is not the case,” the CBP spokesperson said. “The situation is that there are thousands of tourists down there. One individual taking a shell from a coral reef area multiplied by thousands makes a problem.”

“That is why officers have to pay attention to this issue and make a judgement call,” Mohan added.

Shells Go To USFWS
Once the shells are confiscated, they are turned over to USFWS officials, who then make a determination about what to do with the confiscated materials, explained Mohan.

“If the shells are determined to be legal, they can be returned to the people, if we can find them,” said Ken Burton, spokesperson for USFWS. “Otherwise, we donate them to schools or similar institutions, or we send them to our property evidence room and facility in Denver, Colorado.”