We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the home of new neighbors here on the Chesapeake Bay. When we complimented our hostess on the appetizer of fresh oysters, topped with a green pickled relish, she replied, “Thanks. I harvested it all from our beach today.”
We eagerly listened as she shared her coastal foraging venture. She had noticed an abundance of oysters growing in clumps in the shallows close to shore. I had noticed them too, but only as a potential hazard for those without protective water shoes.
Our neighbor simply gathered the oysters at low tide. The unique green oyster topping she served was pickled seaweed from the same shoreline. Through research, she discovered seaweed varieties on our beach are edible. Our beach is known for pesky seaweed. I say “pesky,” because I considered seaweed a distraction from my beach enjoyment. Our hostess had waded into the water, plucked, washed and pickled it with seasoned vinegar and served it as an accoutrement for the oysters. As we sat around the table, enjoying the unique flavors and fresh oysters, I was inspired by her coastal foraging and enthusiasm for the wealth of resources just beyond our front door.
While new to me, coastal foraging is not a new concept. “When the tide is out, the table is set” is a Native American proverb dating back to the 1800s. This adage refers to the wealth of nutrient-rich edible coastal and intertidal marine life.
Seaweed has been part of cultural cuisines and the cosmetic industry throughout history. Packed with nutrients, many consider it a super food. Best harvested at low tide, seaweed can be dried and added to soups or smoothies, pickled with seasoned vinegars and even used for skin care. Varieties including Irish moss, sea lettuce and kelp are common in coastal waterways. Preparation is key, so a little research will serve you well when trying a new recipe or including it in your skin care routine.
Recreational shrimping is a boater-friendly activity. A cast net and access to well-lit docks or piers makes for a good evening netting. Slack currents tend to yield better hauls. Shrimp should be kept alive or on ice until prepped for a meal.
Several species of crab are popular harvest targets. Dungeness crab on the West coast, and blue crab on the East Coast, are favorites. Crabs can be harvested using baited traps or “pots.” In some marinas, a chicken neck or leg tied to a string and a long-handled net, can score you tasty crab for dinner.
Bay scallops are found from New England to Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Their familiar shape, like the iconic Shell Oil gas logo, makes them easy to spot while snorkeling in clear waters near sea grass or at the edge of sandy spots. Scallops can be collected by hand or with a small net. After collecting, place them immediately on ice to prevent spoilage. This also causes the muscles holding the shells closed to relax, making it easier to open the shell. These disc-shaped muscles are the edible portion.
Oysters are a culinary favorite. You can harvest your own when cruising either coast. Oysters develop and grow in beds as they attach to other oyster shells and rocks. Oysters like fresh water running out to a saltwater source, so bays and estuaries tend to be prolific, but any tidal area at low tide will usually expose large numbers for harvesting. Oysters may be difficult to separate from the bed, a good pair of gloves and a stout knife will be helpful. Oyster shells can be sharp, and oyster beds jagged, so be sure to wear protective water shoes or boots when wading out.
Mussels, clams and cockles are found on both coasts and can be collected during low tides by hand or with specialized rakes. Rocky outcroppings and hard-surfaced tidal areas tend to present better gathering success.
All bivalves are filter feeders. Collections should take place in clean, clear waters with adequate tidal flow. Time of year, water temperature and algae blooms can impact safe consumption. Be sure to only collect shells that remain closed until steamed or shucked.
Recreational lobstering can yield fun and food. Spiny lobsters live in warm coastal waters, lack the intimidating claws of their northern counterparts, and can be gathered with minimal gear while snorkeling. Lobsters reside under rock, coral and edges of seagrass beds, and their long antennae can usually be seen protruding from their hiding spot. A common catching technique requires use of a long pole or “tickle stick” to entice them out in the open to be netted.
For all coastal foraging, consult local regulations for size and season limitations, as well as restrictions concerning how to harvest each species. Guidelines and regulations are easily found online in addition to tips and techniques for procuring and preparing your freshly harvested bounty.
Responsible coastal foraging is a wonderful way to not only expand our culinary experiences and provision the galley, but also reduce our impact on the marine environment.
Consider these online resources for more insight and guidance to make your foraging efforts safe, productive and tasty.
Promotes responsible spearfishing and foraging, and its educational website provides webinars as well as links to recipes and other resources.
Provides a co-op of resources and ideas to help alter our environmental impact. Its coastal foraging articles share harvest and preparation ideas for everything from seaweed to shellfish.
Encourages people to enjoy the waterways and instill appreciation for these ecosystems. Its Coastal Foraging Guide is a good introduction into foraging possibilities.
For more resources about where, what and how to add coastal foraging to your boating lifestyle, check out the following:
How to Forage your own Seaweed, with a Little Kelp
from our Friends
A Beginner’s Guide to Foraging & Cooking Seaweed
How to Gather Oysters (Tools & Tips)
Searching for Shellfish on the Seashore
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