A bill to make the channeled whelk Delaware's official sea shell is headed to Gov. Jack Markell, nearly two years after Redding Middle School sixth-grader Allyson Willis first came up with the idea.
Allyson Willis has been to Legislative Hall in Dover just once in her 12 years.
But that’s all it took to get her first bill through the Delaware General Assembly.
“It’s very exciting,” the sixth grader at Louis. L. Redding Middle School said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.”
Allyson didn’t cast any votes during her visit to the state capitol on March 27, but her mere presence on the floor of the state Senate may have helped ensure passage of HB 199, which seeks to make the channeled whelk the official sea shell of the First State.
The measure unanimously passed the Senate last week, just as it had unanimously passed the state House of Representatives two months earlier.
The bill now heads to Gov. Jack Markell for his signature.
“I haven’t heard from the governor’s office so I really have no idea what’s going to happen,” Allyson said this week. “But if he signs it, I’m going to celebrate somehow.”
For Allyson, that moment will be the culmination of nearly two years of effort that began while she was reading a book that listed all the official birds, flowers and mottos of the 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 explained last summer. “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.”
Allyson undertook getting Delaware its own state shell as part of her Girl Scout Bronze Award project, and quickly collected the signatures of 23 classmates and a dozen fellow scouts, which she then mailed to her state legislators.
A couple of weeks later, she received a phone call from the office of state Rep. Quinn Johnson (D-Middletown), who had broached the idea with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
While Allyson had been hoping to push for the Jingle Shell, DNREC suggested the channeled whelk – commonly referred to as a conch – based on its economic impact to 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 than 10 years and a low rate of reproduction, but in the early 2000s conches were the second-most landed fishery resource in the state by weight, behind only the blue crab.”
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 later said Allyson was right in believing Delaware needs an official shell, much like it has an official tree, an official insect and even an official mineral.
“Given how important Delaware’s beaches and waterways are to our state’s economy and identity, we really should have a state shell,” he said. “The channeled whelk has a strong history here in Delaware, so this makes perfect sense.”
State Sen. Bethany Hall-Long (D-Middletown), who co-sponsored the bill said she also was excited to play a role in fulfilling Allyson’s dream.
“It’s always inspiring to see students, like Allyson Willis … navigate the process of making a bill a law,” she said. “It took a lot of effort on everyone’s part and gave them a valuable lesson in how our democracy works.”
Hall-Long also had to give a lesson to her fellow senators, who jokingly asked her to pronounce the channeled whelk’s Latin name, Busycotypus canaliculatus, before they would agree to move the measure to the floor for a vote.
Allyson, meanwhile, was asked to stand for a round of applause, a moment that she quietly admitted to dreading.
“I’m so nervous,” she said just minutes before the vote. “I’m surprised it’s gotten this far and now I can’t wait.”
Follow the Middletown Transcript on Facebook to find out if Allyson’s wait result in an official signing ceremony with the governor.