By Sarah Fiorello

By: Gabi Tan

Sitting adjacent to the entryway of my home in Minnesota is a white, lustrous picture frame, surrounded by shells and sand from my family’s homeland. As it turns out, the frame is actually a shell itself, a shell so integral to the island archipelago it comes from that it’s considered the hidden treasure of our seas. Truly, there are few species quite as important to the Filipino people as the native Capiz shell (also spelled kapis). The shell is a staple of Philippine culture, often used in essentially any household item you can think of. Going to a Filipino gift shop ensures that there will be a sea of glittering ivory-white along the aisles of offered merchandise. Its prominence is undeniable, and its essence irreplaceable.

However, the possibility for Capiz to reach an even higher potential arose from the advent of the modern climate crisis. Rising global temperatures have led to a witch-hunt for sustainable energy sources rather than our current non-renewable favorites. One such energy source is biofuels, a category into which scientists have discovered the Capiz shell’s waste falls. On the surface, the discovery seems great! Production of Capiz already leads to plenty of bio-waste anyway, why not capitalize on it?

If only it were that simple.

Native Capiz populations are already declining from current commercial demand, and it seems likely that our frenzy to produce more biofuel will lead to more trudged up shells.

So, do we save the shells, or us?

The only reasonable answer is a compromise. While the current levels of waste products should be used for biofuels, the shells should not be hunted for this purpose alone. Potentially “charging up” our lives is not worth endangering a culturally significant species that could lead to far more dire consequences ecological consequences in the future.

Why are these shells good for biofuel?

When producing biofuel, scientists combine fat with alcohol in a special process called transesterification that produces harvestable energy as a product. This process relies on the base catalyst being used, which is essentially just the fat combined with a sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide that creates a catalyst for the chemical reaction. Scientists’ current dilemma with biofuel catalysts is that the kind which is currently mass produced typically relies on vegetable oil for fat. Vegetable oil makes for a homogenous, or of uniform composition, catalyst, which then becomes difficult to separate from the biofuel and is a fairly expensive process. The solution therefore would be to find a large source of heterogeneous catalyst-producing fat.

Here is where the Capiz steps in.

As a bivalve with a shell, mussel, and pearls within, it has a lot of diversity of material which stores fat. This allows for easy creation of a heterogeneous catalyst that would lower the expense of biofuel production, making it far more likely to be widespread.

Unfortunately, there’s a few flaws with the usage of Capiz for biofuels.

The first is that Capiz populations are dwindling.

There’s a few reasons for this.

One is that the demand for Capiz, especially in the Philippines, has always been high. Capiz has historically been the country’s fifth largest export. Unsustainable harvesting practices have worsened the toll on the Capiz beds, resulting in excess damage to their breeding grounds and settlements.
The second is the prawn industry which heavily affects the Capiz due to its close proximity. Any toxins used for flushing the prawns often contaminate the Capiz, along with other chemical runoff and pollution.

Third is the effect of climate change on the Philippine Sea. Stronger and more frequent storms and typhoons result in rising siltation, or the covering of the shell’s with thick silt which suffocates them. With decreased oxygen, Capiz frequently breeds more weakly and must work to find safer areas to survive. The devastating typhoon Sisang of 1987 nearly wiped out the Capiz population of Sorsogon Bay from heavy siltation, and mass floods had done the same in Sual Bay. In these areas, it is still observed that these Capiz populations have migrated to deeper waters to avoid future siltation, leaving fishermen with less feasible yield and less profit.

Reduction in Capiz population is a financial and ecological drawback for the Filipino people.

Last but not least, Capiz shell is a cultural staple of the Filipino culture.

Filipinos use the shell to make windows, lanterns, light fixtures, kitchen utensils, bowls, jewelry, and even chalk and animal glue. There are countless uses for the material, and we have discovered them through centuries of co-existence. To lose availability of the shells would be a wound to the Filipino community.

Sitting at home in the bleak midwinter, my young self would stare wondrously at the white, lustrous picture frame made of shell, recalling the stories my parents would tell of shimmery white windows and light fixtures that adorned the houses of their childhoods. Even as a Filipino descendent, it is easy for me to feel love for the versatile Capiz shell that means so much to my people. Not every society has an exact equivalent to the shell, but every society can understand not wanting to lose something important to them carelessly. The climate crisis will force us to make tough choices in terms of what we prioritize in this world moving forward, and while it is our nature to put humans first, we should recognize the importance of looking beyond ourselves too.