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Posted: Mar 22, 2010 on LTS Forum by TomH:

Has anyone had trouble bringing shells back into either the U.S. or Canada when going through Customs? Thanks.


Queen conch shells from the Caribbean are CITES listed and technically require an import permit, so risk confiscation. Otherwise, as long as they are clean, you declare them as wildlife products on the Customs form and don't appear to be attempting to smuggle them in you should be OK. My wife brought in some large Nautilus shells and seven or eight small cowries and tritons from Indonesia for me two days ago, and had no trouble at all at Houston Bush Intercontinental.

Jo O'Keefe:

I have no personal experience. However, I met a man and woman on the beach a month ago who were devastated because recently a border patrol officer confiscated all seashells from everyone leaving Costa Rica at the airport.
She said the man was filling buckets with shells he confiscated. The woman showed me photos in her camera of the magnificent shells that they
had found.

US Customs and Border Patrol has a website through which questions about the legalities of bringing home shells could be asked: Prohibited and Restricted Items (click on "Fish and Wildlife")

Given what happened to the tourists at that airport, carrying printed documentation of what is permissible would be wise.


US Customs has never looked in any bag, even when I came back from England during the foot and mouth disease epidemic. But beware the baggage inspectors (not Customs) for the airlines in some countries (the Caribbean and Central America come to mind) who thoroughly inspect every item before (and sometimes after) you even get to the ticket counter; they will confiscate whatever suites their fancy. These confiscations can be quite arbitrary. I've often thought that greasing their palms might help, but with my luck I would get the only honest person around and end up as a segment on "Locked Up Abroad."

Costa Rica is very strict.


I've found the if Customs tries to confiscate and you object they call in Fish & Wildlife, who actually does the enforcement. Fish & Wildlife basically will bar anything prohibited to be exported by other countries. So you have to know what is prohibited by the country you're visiting. You'll encounter two hurdles. The first when leaving a country (and as Tom pointed out, that can be quite arbitrary), and the secod when coming back to the USA (also rather arbitrary). My experience has been that if you are unlucky and pass throught an inspector (going out or in) that looks and cares, what they see is a shell, what they know is that some shells are prohibited, but what they don't know is one shell from another, and just confiscate everything.

My worst experience was Customs saying no, me saying yes, Customs bringing in a Fish and Wildlife Officer, the Officer saying no, me saying yes and the dispute finally resolved by the Officer agreeing to put the shells (10 citrus crates) in storage until I could prove my shells were not prohibited by Brazil under CITES. After six months of being unable to get the Fish and Wildlife experts to understand that a Strombus goliath (not prohibited by anyone at the time) was not a Strombus gigas and that neither were prohibited for export by Brazil at the time, I gave up and called my Senator. He was kind enough to have his staff intervene and get my shells released. But the Fish & Wildlife would not release the shells until I paid for nine months storage. After another call to my Senator the shells were finally released without cost to me. You can prevail, but don't fool yourself into thinking you're dealing with rationale bureaucrats, it will be easy and that you won't be ready to kill along the way.

Here's what Fish & Wildlife says on their website:

You’ll find many wildlife and plant products for sale around the world. As an international traveler, you can support conservation worldwide by asking questions and learning the facts before you buy any wildlife or plant product. Just because you find an item for sale does not mean it is legal to import. Some of these products may be made from illegally taken animals or plants and may not be exported or imported. Others may require permits before you can bring them home to the United States. By making informed choices, you can avoid losing your souvenir or paying a fine.

Most countries protect their native animals and plants under national laws and through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Signed by more than 160 nations including the United States, this treaty supports sustainable trade in wildlife and plants while protecting species at risk.

If the country you’re visiting bans the sale or export of a species, you cannot legally import it here.

What You Need to Know

Before you go overseas, make sure that the country you’re visiting allows the export of its native species or other wildlife that you acquire there. Many nations now prohibit or require permits for trade in wildlife and plants

Remember that resource protection laws and treaties not only cover live animals and plants, but also mounted specimens, foods, parts, and products made from or decorated with fur, hide, skin, feathers, scales, shell, antlers, horns, teeth, claws, or bones.

When you return to the United States, you must declare all wildlife, wildlife products, and plants. You may need permits for some items. Others are always off limits.

Coral and Shells: Many nations limit the collection, sale, and export of live coral and coral products. Consult local authorities before buying coral souvenirs, jewelry, or aquarium decorations. Take similar precautions if queen conch, giant clam, or other shells catch your eye. You should check country laws before beachcombing or exporting the treasures you find between tides. Import restrictions may also apply (for example, queen conch shells from a number of Caribbean countries cannot be imported into the United States).


I had my stuff gone thru after returning to the US from Eleuthera last time. They seemed more interested in live plants than anything, and really didn't bother my shells.
One guy (who wasn't with our party) had a cooler full of some Mahi-Mahi and at least a dozen live S. gigas. The customs officials didn't want him to go thru with any of it, but he got billigerent and much to my surprise, they let him go thru with everything in the cooler. Wow.

I've had a couple people tell me that if you go to Costa Rica and collect, clean the shells and mail them to your home address from there, before you leave.

Click here to go to LTS Forum for shell collecting restrictions for specific locations. 

CLICK HERE for discussion regarding Panama.

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