Shell Hunting on the Pacific Coast

I think I am addicted to mussels.

When I lived in Florida, I used to eat a ton of the meaty morsels, slathering them in a sea of garlic lemon butter. Mussels were easy to find in restaurants along the Gulf Coast, but I noticed I was getting sick after I ate them. It happened again with oysters and clams, so I wondered if it was shellfish poisoning or something in the water.


By the time I moved out of Florida in 2005, I was no longer eating anything with a hinge, turned off by the grit, stench and other unpleasant surprises. I started reading more about mussels and learned how algae and red tide posed a real threat. This was a problem when I lived near Sand Key, Madeira and Clearwater Beach, and now that I live in Cleveland, I still worry about contaminated water and what it can do to shellfish. We all know what happened in Toledo and how algae impacted the drinking water there this summer. What does it do to our habitat?

After living in Florida for nearly two decades, I now find it interesting how I am spending a lot of time learning about different kinds of mussels in freshwater lakes. It appears that zebra and quagga mussels (the invasive kind) are brimming inside the waters of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes in greater numbers. Everywhere I go, I want to learn what to do about all the excess shells that wash up along the Lake Erie shoreline.

coquinaThere is a way we can put them to good use. During a road trip through South Carolina last December, I met a gentleman who also knew a thing or two about mussels. Bob had been camping at Poinsett State Park when we started a conversation about coquina shells, which were used to build many of the park shelters and other facilities at Poinsett. How fascinating it was to see how these shells were used in construction. Back in 1935, three companies from the Civilian Conservation Corps used coquina shells in the construction of this beautiful state park located in the high hills of Santee. The finished product was essentially nature-made limestone, made up of broken seashells. When you visit the park, you will see it along walls and building foundations.

After some discussion, Bob and I ended up going our separate way. He told me I should look him up in Kitsap County, Washington, whenever I wanted to look at shells over on the Pacific Coast. I had never been to the Kitsap Peninsula, so I wasn’t sure when I might do that. But I found the perfect time to pay him a visit this summer.

wash1Just before a conference in August, I decided to head north by northwest. I flew into Portland, then headed east through the central part of Washington State. I made my way through sections of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, then camped along Peugot Sound in Olympia. There is such immense beauty in the trails that surround Mount St. Helens, Packwood Lake and Mount Rainier.

Bob met me at the Arcadia Point Boat Launch, and we kayaked along south Puget Sound, threading our way in low tide so we could see the crabs and other sea creatures near Squaxin Island. From there we headed to Hope Island, which is only accessible by boat.

The beach at Hope Island was littered with blue mussel shells, and Bob says the meat will make a fine meal. But the mere mention of eating mussels gives me retching memories of Florida, so I am content to study the tiny creatures and read exciting things like marine biotoxin reports instead.

Bob showed me crabs and other sea creatures, and we talked with a group of fishermen about how to harvest geoducks.

musselsignIronically, I made my way to California and made time to visit UC Berkely, hike at John Muir Woods, and take a beautiful drive along the Pacific Coast near San Jose. During my drive time, I saw a sign marked “MUSSEL QUARANTINE” and learned how mussels pose a threat for anyone planning to harvest the meat. Here in California, quarantines are conducted every year from May through October.

This is all good information for the work I am doing. Since I am composting the shells, and not the mussel meat, it makes sense to consider water contaminants and other pollution. A lot of researchers are telling me I have nothing to worry about — that invasives are not necessarily toxic and they won’t impact my edible plants. I still want to be sure there is little danger in composting shell waste and mixing it with other organic materials. I have had several conversations with researchers who study these shells, and even though they say not to worry, I want to test my soil and see where we go from here.