Seashells crucial for coastal lifecycle

By Swati Basu Das — Other than offering the most scenic spots to tourists, the Sultanate  also has a plethora of beaches which range from soft sandy stretch to breathtaking coastlines that are pebble-paved or littered with colourful, interesting shells. The aquamarine hues of Oman’s coastal stretch add to its picturesque beauty. One sign of a healthy beach anywhere in the world is when modern heavy development near the country’s shoreline still leave a space for shoreline and sea creatures to wander. Far from the seabed, if observed closely, the shore is home to several marine creatures that navigate the sandy beaches with the help of the waves.
Popular to us are clams, crabs, mussels and other species of the mollusks’ group.
These mollusks are usually housed in the most beautifully adorned shells becoming ornamental creatures that not only add a fascinating look to the shore but add vibe to the seabed. Constantly, they are picked from the sand for their distinctive designs with many not realizing how more wonderful they are left lying untouched on the beach.
conch-1657482_1920The shells that serve as home to these mollusks play a vital role in protecting their lives. Through these shells, a sense of equilibrium is maintained making them hard to reach for some of their preys thus maintaining the ecological cycle running. But they perform a special role beyond than.
“Oman beaches are rich in natural wonder — from simple marine creatures like crabs, mussels, snails, varied species of turtles and even a richness of green coloured algae otherwise known as ulva facilitating the growth of plankton and algae important for the functioning of marine ecology,” Elayne Looker, marine scientist at Five Oceans Environmental Services, said.
“This is because the entire coastal stretch of the Sultanate has zero percentage of pollutants and industrial wastes and if taken care of properly can help enhance the natural bounty of marine creatures like mollusks.  The mollusks can move freely,” she explained.
The types of shells that can be found along Oman beaches are diverse. From gastropod to bivalves, those that appear to be plenty and washed ashore during high tides are: Venus Comb Murex, Knobbed Whelks,, Channeled Whelks, Oyster Shells, Cowries or the coffee bean trivia, Gulf Oyster drill and the Atlantic fig snail.
During the peak tourist season, the vast coastal stretch which attracts the most tourists and locals are noted to have a decrease in shell density.
“Tourism and even collecting shells do lead to a decrease in their numbers. Beaches like Al Sawadi and shell beach in Masirah Island were found to be the shell collectors’ favourite [spot] due to the variety and unique structure and form of the calcium carbonate mantle of the mollusks species,” a marine scientist said.
Marine scientists also agree that collecting shells may have an impact in the ecological balance of a certain place. Researchers said shells provide a diverse swath of environmental functions.
“They provide homes for creatures such as crabs and hiding places for small fish. So we should also preserve the shells by leaving them on the beach than picking them up for the living decor,” said a marine scientist based in Muscat.
“As tourism increases at a beach, the variety of shells found there, in turn, decreases,” said Vijay Handa, the cluster manager of Masirah Island Resort.
What many tourists and even locals have to understand is that shells do not only provide home for mollusks but their surfaces also serve as a nesting space for algae, sea grass, sponge and other micro-organism.
As an important part for coastal ecology, pocketing shells and the use of heavy machines and vehicles on the sand may damage not only the ecosystem but also endanger many organisms relying on the shell for survival and life cycle.
The best lesson everyone should remember is that however rare the shells you find in the beach, they will be more ornamental on the shore than in your hand.

— axisswati@gmail.com