Delaware is renowned for its pristine beaches, thriving seaside communities and delicious seafood.
But one thing it doesn't have is an official state shell.
That could finally be about to change thanks to an 11-year-old Girl Scout from Middletown whose petitions and letter-writing campaign recently convinced state legislators to introduce a bill that would make the channeled whelk the first shell in the First State.
"I can't believe this might actually happen," said Allyson Willis, a rising sixth grader at Louis L. Redding Middle School. "I'm going to be so proud of myself if it actually goes through."
Willis' quest first began last fall while the avid reader was comparing the official birds, flowers and mottos of various states.
"I noticed then that Delaware doesn't have a state shell when so many others do, and they don't even have as many beaches as we do," she said. "I talked to some of the other kids in my class and they felt the same way I did. That made me feel like maybe this can actually happen."
So Willis collected the signatures of 23 classmates and a dozen members of her Girl Scout troop, which she then mailed to Delaware's Congressional delegation.
"Congressman [John] Carney wrote me back and said he liked my idea but he told me I would have to get something passed in the Delaware General Assembly," she said. "At the time, I had suggested the Jingle Shell, so I sent letters and Jingle Shells to my state legislators in April."
A couple of weeks later, a legislative aide from the office of Rep. Quinn Johnson (D-Middletown) called her with a proposal.
"They told me they liked the idea of a state shell, but asked if I would be okay with the channeled whelk instead," she said. "I was a little disappointed, but I think getting a state shell is bigger than which shell it actually is, and I think the whelk is interesting because it's so important to Delaware."
The channeled whelk, whose shells are commonly referred to as conchs, is one of two predatory sea snails found on the floor of the central and lower Delaware Bay.
Along with its smaller cousin the knobbed whelk, the channeled whelk is typically canned with most of the harvest being exported to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean Isles and the Mediterranean, where it becomes the central ingredient in dishes like scungilli, or conch chowder.
DNREC officials said they suggested the channeled whelk because on its economic impact in the state.
"It's definitely an important species in Delaware," said Rich Wong, a marine biologist with DNREC who's been studying the whelk since 2006. "The harvest tends to go in cycles because it has a relatively long life cycle of more than10 years and a low rate of reproduction, but in the early 2000s conchs were the second-most landed fishery resource in the state by weight, behind only the blue crab."
Page 2 of 2 - Today, the whelks make up the fourth largest commercial fishery in Delaware behind blue crabs, striped bass and the eastern oyster, according to Doug Miller, an associate professor of oceanography at the University of Delaware.
"It's kind of a big deal," he said. "And I think it would make a great state shell, because it's something you definitely might find on our beaches, along with the egg cases."
Johnson said he plans to move his state shell bill forward when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
"It will be great to have a state shell if the bill gets passed, but for me it's more about Allyson, her classmates and her fellow Girl Scouts taking an interest in the environment and the legislative process," he said. "We try to listen to all our constituents and something like this shows that you don't have to be of voting age to be a constituent or to make a difference."
State Sen. Bethany Hall-Long (D-Middletown), the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, agreed.
"It's great to have young people, like Allyson and her classmates, take an interest in government and work to get the state shell bill passed," she said. "And, as someone who spent a lot of time collecting shells on the beach where I grew up along the Delaware coastline, I'll be especially happy to have played a role in putting this law on the books."
In the meantime, Willis is hoping the proposed legislation helps her to earn the Girl Scout's Bronze Award, the highest honor bestowed to girls in her age group.
"If that happens, I think then I'll write to Vice President Biden and tell him about how a sixth-grader is making a difference in Delaware," she said.