Shell game

LIHUE — The sight of tourists picking up seashells off the beaches of Kauai is common. Taking those shells from the ocean or beach is generally not prohibited but is regulated by the Division of Aquadic Resources. But when someone takes those natural resources and sells them without reporting the sales or mining of them, they’re breaking the law.

One diving enthusiast who preferred to remain anonymous said he and a group of over a dozen friends have been harvesting seashells from the waters off Kauai for the past 12 years. He sells the valuable treasures in his local store.

“It’s a Kauai thing. A lot of other people are doing it too,” said the source.

He said they have a commercial marine license but don’t report their sales of the sunrise shells to the state, a requirement mandated by law.

Statute HRS 189.2 states that no person shall take marine life for commercial purposes without first obtaining a commercial marine license. Seashells are considered “marine life” and therefore subject to licensing requirements. A person who harvests seashells for sale is required to have a license issued by the Division of Aquadic Resources. That person is also required to submit monthly reports of their harvesting activity. 

”It’s a business,” an anonymous Kauai storeowner said. “I’m not hiding. I’m just doing my business. The shells I sell are like semi-precious stones. People on the Mainland make jewelry out of them and sell them.”

He, like others on Kauai, sells the coveted sunrise shells. He directed The Garden Island to even more sought-after shells he has seen people picking up off the beaches – the Kahelelani shells. The red variety sell for up to $500 for a film canister sized collection. The Kahelelani can only be found on four of the Hawaiian Islands – Niihau, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai. 

The long-held desire to adorn oneself with shells, leaves and feathers continues not only among the Hawaiian people but everyone, especially those who visit the islands. In Hawaii’s long history, it used to be that only royalty could wear the Kahelelani shells.

Now, anyone can buy them.

At an island flea market, 18-inch Kahelelani strands are sold for close to $900 each and six-inch bracelets for $165 each. The employee who was working there said they sell the strands made from shells collected from the island of Niihau.

“We get asked a lot about the Kahelelani shells by tourists who want them,” she said. “We buy them from a guy named Shell Dave. Everybody knows him. I didn’t know anything about needing to report the sale of them.”

At another flea market store, sunrise shells were being offered for $75 and up for one single sunrise shell. Other jewelry made from Kahelelani shells, specifically earrings, were also showcased.

“We dive all the time for the sunrise shells,” said the son of the owner of that Kauai store. 

He said they don’t have a commercial marine license and don’t report their sales of shells.

Fines start at $15 for the first violation for selling of shells found in Hawaii and can go as high as $3,000. In addition, a fine of up to $1,000 per specimen may be imposed for selling violations, according to state laws. 

Todd Crawford, owner of a long-time Kauai store named “The Shell Factory,” said Kauai collector shells are so easy to get on the Internet that he is closing out selling them and offering them at 50 percent off to make room for more jewelry.

A quick look at offerings of Kahelelani shell necklaces on the Internet showed prices ranging from $35 up to $22,000. Many of the shells sold in Kauai stores are imported. One store owner estimated that 95 percent of his shells are not from Hawaii.

Dan Dennison, education and outreach coordinator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said  the fine for taking seashells for commercial purposes without a commercial marine license is $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. He added that a person does not need a commercial marine license to collect shells if they don’t intend to sell them.

The laws, say some locals, don’t always apply.

“They make up stupid laws but they’re not for everybody,” said the anonymous store owner who dives and sells sunrise shells. “They just don’t want a bunch of people taking shells.”


Lisa Ann Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at


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