Eating From The Seashore: Seaweeds & Shellfish of the Salish Sea

Group of day campers doing the seaweed challenge on Lummi Island.A day on the seashore is fun, but a if you know some basic information about seaweeds and shellfish, then a day is never enough. In fact, you could live on the beach always discover new things. “Edge” areas are always the places where the greatest number of species cross paths, and there is no greater edge than the seashore.

Seashores have been the ultimate place for teaching classes. After 25 years of researching and teaching nature, I still feel like a novice on the seashore.  That’s why it’s so exciting.  It puts the novice on par with the expert who can be surprised at any second by the weather, a creature that washes up, a never-noticed-before shore plant, oh the myriad seaweeds, diverse critters under every rock, hard-to-distinguish genera of birds flocking together, raptors diving and causing chaos amongst their prey, and the endless mystery of the ocean tempting us with its infinity.

Start with the best field guide: Your State Sport Fishing Rules

Well actually, get the EZ Guide to Common Intertidal Invertebrates of the Salish Sea (pictured to the right), then just start with your state fish and wildlife department Sport Fishing Rules are the most up-to-date, comprehensive field guides available for anything harvestable or protected along the seashore.  I highly recommend getting the printed rules pamphlet and always carrying it with you because the state online information, although wonderful and in-depth for shellfish, just recently got fairly organized, but it’s sometimes hard to find the different pages necessary for information.

That’s part of the reason I wrote this article in the meantime, to create a one-stop understanding of shellfish, and to provide more detailed information on seaweeds – since while the state harvesting rules for seaweeds are simple and clear, there is no natural history information provided by them.

General Rules, Safety & Natural History

First, learn General Rules for Non-Commercial Seaweed/Shellfish Collecting in WA by going to this Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife webpage, including special rules for Marine Preserves and Conservation Closures, as well as state rules about Private Tideland Ownership.  Generally, a “Combination” or a “Shellfish/Seaweed” License is required for all shellfish (except crawfish) and seaweed harvest. It allows you to harvest razor clams, red rock, coastal dungeness crab, goose barnacles, mussels, octopus, oysters, scallops, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, shrimp, softshell and hardshell clams, squid, and seaweed. No catch record card is required for those specific species/locations.

Just as important, check Rule Changes since the Annual Sportfishing Pamplet was last published.

Even more important, go to this Washington State Dept. of Health webpage for the many Health Advisories & Beach Closures or call 360-236-3330 for Marine Biotoxin (Red Tide), Vibrio Disease & Pollution Closures, and note the following advisories:

  • Water color does not indicate SHELLFISH safety. Vibrio and Marine Biotoxins (Red Tide) are normally colorless. Vibrio is eliminated if you properly wash, cool and cook fish and shellfish, but Marine Biotoxins (Red Tide) are not eliminated by cooking, and they can cause deadly Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP). Also check out this page on Domoic Acid poisoning. These toxins only concentrate in BIVALVES and the only way to be safe is to check with your county or state Dept of Health for beach closures. The term red tide is being phased out in place of “Marine Biotoxins” or “harmful algal bloom” for harmful species, and “algal bloom” for non-harmful species, as they are not necessarily red and many have no discoloration at all. In addition, they are unrelated to movements of the tides.
  • Rinse your SHELLFISH catch in salt (not fresh) water before leaving the beach, quickly cool your catch on ice or in a refrigerator, and cook as soon as possible. Wash or dry all SEAWEED before eating.
  • Cook SHELLFISH thoroughly before eating.  Cooking, rinsing, drying or freezing DOES NOT destroy all pollutants. CRAB can also concentrate pollutants in their internal organs (crab butter). Clean CRABS before cooking. Eat only the meat.

Next, find shellfish beach openings/closures on this new interactive shellfish map to find beach openings/closures, or use this Washington State Dept. of Fish & Wildlife webpage.

Then, learn about rip currents that can cause you to be washed out to sea, and know your tides that can trap and drown you in isolated coves, on outcroppings, and in muddy tide flats where many people have tragically lost their lives. A quick view of your local tides in Washington & Oregon can be found at or check tides anywhere in the US by clicking on and then choosing your state from the left-hand column.

The following information is a summary of the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife overview of rules for various marine species (same link as the first one above):

Relic Shells & Unclassified Marine Invertebrates

The author drying bullwhip kelp in trees on a dry, breezy afternoon.Relic shells are basically any shell you find without inhabitants. You can collect shells in Washington State from all publicly owned beaches except not beaches and tidelands you don’t own or from which you don’t have permission to harvest, not beaches where county and city laws restrict seaweed collection, never more than 5 lbs. per day, and never oyster shells, the reason for which is explained below under the bivalves section.

Unclassified marine invertebrates, or basically anything not mentioned in the Washington Fish & Wildlife rules pamphlet, are all illegal to harvest without a special research permit, dead or alive. The rules pamphlet has a few nice drawings of example species which include sea snails including Moon Snails, Nudibranch Mollusks, Graceful Rock Crab, Graceful Kelp Crab, Purple Shore Crab which is not the invasive Green Crab also called shore crab in the Atlantic Ocean, Starfish of any number of legs, and yes, Sand Dollars, among many others.

Squid, Octopus, Crab, Crayfish & Shrimp

Squid and octopus are considered shellfish, so if you want to harvest those, see the fascinating non-commercial squid rules and natural history pages on the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife webpage. including the mysterious way squid begin swimming in through the Straight of Juan de Fuca from the deep ocean in late summer, and finally reach south Puget Sound in early winter.  As of this writing for octopus, only the Giant Pacific Octupus can be non-commercially harvested in all areas, except Marine Area 12, with a limit of 1 per day year-round, but no chemicals or irritants are allowed, and they can be caught with hands or an instrument which does not penetrate, unless taken while angling with a fishing license.

See Recreational Crab Fishing if you plan to harvest crab non-commercially. There are many rules, like releasing all softshell crabs, king crabs, box crabs, pacific graceful crabs, or any crabs below minimum size and keeping the back shell to prove size. Dungeness & Red Rock Crab are allowable species. A Catch Record Card and endorsement is required to fish for Dungeness Crab in Puget Sound, and a second Catch Record Card is needed in the winter, and all cards must be returned by an early deadline to avoid a $10 penalty, whether or not you catch crab. Dungeness Crab has various daily harvest limits based on whether you harvest in the Puget Sound, Columbia River, or the Pacific Ocean. Also don’t forget to research and follow all the gear rules.

See Non-Commercial Crayfish/Crawfish Rules if you plan to harvest them, but no Shellfish/Seaweed license is required at this time. However, there are gear rules (for crab, shrimp and crayfish) and they can only be harvested in season, which is about May-Oct. Most important, you need to distinguish the only native species in Washington which is the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). For this native species, there is a minimum size and daily limit, with females with eggs or young attached immediately returned to the water unharmed.  There are many non-native, invasive crayfish species, and they must be dead before being removed from the riparian area, have no daily limit, size or sex restrictions, but gear rules still apply.

Non-Commercial Shrimp rules are confusing.  First, harvesting what is generally considered shrimp for human consumption (shrimp in the family Pandalidae) is almost never allowed in Puget Sound due to conservation concerns, but that shrimp in the family Crangonidae or Crangon, often called Ghost Shrimp (as they are often clear-colored) or Sand Shrimp (since they are found buried in the sand) have no apparent harvesting restrictions. Fishermen use Crangon for bait (steelhead etc.) and they know how to harvest Crangon (Ghost or Sand Shrimp) easily, but the Washington Fish & Wildlife rules (pamphlet nor online) doesn’t explain anything about them.  Personally, I eat Crangon straight up, but if you want to harvest the normal, commercial Pandalid shrimp, there’s great information on the Fish & Wildlife site, though you have to use the side menu to find it, including: pandalid shrimp seasons and limits for each location plus seasons and limits map, pandalid shrimp harvesting suggestions, and shrimp cleaning/preparing suggestions.

Sea Cucumbers & Sea Urchins

The Washington Fish & Wildlife website doesn’t have natural history information on these harvestable species, but the pamplet does show that:

Sea Urchins are legal to harvest from all publicly owned areas, not beaches and tidelands you don’t own or from which you don’t have permission to harvest, and not beaches where county and city laws restrict seaweed collection, and no more than 36 per day for green sea urchins, 18 per day for purple and red as of 2013.

Giant California Sea Cucumbers have the same rules as for Sea Urchins, but are not collectable in Marine Area 12, are subject to the many pollution closure areas and vibrio advisories, and have a daily limit of 25 as of the year 2013. All other species of Sea Cucumber are considered non-classified marine invertebrates and therefore are not collectable.

Bivalves:  Abalone, Barnacles, Mussels & Clams

Wolf College coordinator Kim Chisholm collecting clams.

As described under the General Rules, Safety & Natural History section above, you can find public shellfishing beaches by going to this Washington State Dept. of Fish & Wildlife webpage. and then go to the Washington State Dept. of Health webpage for the many Health Advisories & Beach Closures or call 360-236-3330 for Marine Biotoxin (Red Tide), Vibrio Disease & Pollution Closures, and note the advisories posted above under the General Rules, Safety & Natural History section, especially for the deadly Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) which invisibly concentrate in bivales, can’t be cooked off, and the only way to be safe is to check with your county or state Dept of Health for beach closures.

Abalone are illegal to harvest in Washington State waters for conservation closures.

Goose Barnacles are not commonly thought of as edible, but they are indeed. Outside the Olympic National Park along the Pacific Ocean, the season is currently Nov-Mar with no minimum size and a daily limit of 10 lbs. whole, or 5 lbs barnacle stalks.  On Puget Sound public beaches, the season is year-round with the same catch limits.

Razor Clams enjoy detailed information on the Washington Fish & Wildlife website. They are only harvestable on certain Pacific Coast beaches, during limited and surprise-announced dates from Oct-May, with certain bag limits, allowable gear, and care for beaches, how to harvest razor clams and how to avoid wastage, how to clean and prepare razor clams, plus razor clam recipes,  information on a specific marine toxin called domoic acid, conservation information here and here, and a photo about clam breathing holes called “shows” that indicate what kind of clam is there before you dig.

Other Clams are also well detailed on the Washington Fish & Wildlife website with a year-round season except during health department closures and as noted on the Public Beach list, and including a good page on geoducks (pronounced gooey-ducks) which have no minimum size and a daily limit of the first 3 dug and special laws about not thrusting anything through the neck of a geoduck or possessing only the neck, horse clams which have no minimum size and a daily limit in 2013 of the first 7 dug regardless of condition, and native littlenecks, manila clams, butter clams, cockles and macoma clams which have a daily combined limit of 40 clams or 10 lbs., which ever is less, in 2013, all with a minimum size of 1.5″  and eastern soft shell clams which must be retained regardless of size or condition, and along with all other marine clams, the count must be includ

ed in the 40 clams or 10 lbs.

Mussels have the same season as for clams, but are closed in all fresh water areas, and have no minimum size, and  have a limit of 10 lbs. in the shell.

Scallops don’t seem to enjoy a page on the Washington Fish & Wildlife website, but the 2012-13 rules pamphlet details a year-round season for the pink & spiny scallops with no minimum size, a combined daily limit of 5 quarts or 10 pounds in the shell and may be harvested only by hand or with a hand-held manually operated prying tool, the weathervane scallop with a minimum 4″ size measured across the longest distance of the shell, and daily limit of 12, and the rock scallop with no minimum size and a daily limit of 6, with hammers and mallets disallowed for harvesting.

Oysters include the native Olympia Oyster and the Pacific Oyster which is now our mainstay oyster, and a few other non-native oyster species which have been commercially attempted. Oyster shells themselves provide the best setting and growing substrate for juvenile oysters, so it is the law that all oysters harvested from non-farming areas must be shelled on the beach so that the shells are left there to help repopulate more oysters, and think about it: you would be removing juvenile oysters growing on the shells of the oysters you harvest! The Washington Fish & Wildlife website also does a great job describing how to shuck oysters. The rules for harvest for all oyster species are a year-round season except as noted on the Public Beach list and subject to health closures, witha  minimum size of 2.5″ measured across the longest distance of the shell, a daily limit of 18, with oysters consumed on the beach counting toward the limit, and leaving shells on the same tideland and tide height where they were taken.

Harvesting Seaweed


Check your own state’s laws on seaweed harvest regulations, but in the State of Washington, most public beaches and inland waterways are open for seaweed collection, except:

  • Not beaches and tidelands you don’t own or from which you don’t have permission toharvest;
  • Not beaches where county and city laws restrict seaweed collection;
  • Not more than 10 lbs. wet weight per day;
  • Not if herring eggs are attached;
  • And not any state park beaches except Fort Flagler, Fort Ebey and Fort Worden and only there for a couple weeks in the spring;
  • Cut bull kelp at least 24″ above the bulb, and short-stemmed kelps at least 12″ above the anchor point, which must be left in place;
  • Only use a knife or similar instrument since tearing and use of tined instruments like rakes or forks may be prohibited;
  • Each harvester must use their own container, as multiple limits may not be combined in the same container;
  • Each harvester should have a scale to determine when the harvest limit has been reached, as drying or partial drying prior to weighing is prohibited.
  • Tearing the plant and use of tined instruments such as rakes or forks is prohibited.

Natural History of Seaweed

Lead instructor Megan Damofle and assistant instructor Glen MacKay collecting bladderwrack (fucus) from the rocks.

Seaweed is a colloquial term encompassing macroscopic, multicellular, benthic marine algae, according to Smith, G.M. 1944. Marine Algae of the Monterey Peninsula, California. Stanford Univ., 2nd Edition. The term includes some members of the red, brown and green algae. all of which keep having their classifications changes as DNA evidence emerges. It used to be that algea was considered in the Plant Kingdom, and then algea was given its own Kindgom, and now Green Algea is back into the Plant Kingdom, while Brown is given its own Domain, and Red is sometimes in the Domain with the Browns, or in the Plant Kingdom with the Greens.

We’ll let the taxonomists figure that out while we enjoy Red, Brown, and Green Seaweeds. The only other species you may come across in northern climates that seems like seaweed but isn’t is Eel Grass, which is actually a grass that grows in sea water, and is perhaps the most important habitat for spawning of fish and other classes of marine animals in the North Pacific Coast if not throughout the world.

Rivaling Eel Grass for the most important habitat are Bullwhip Kelp “forests” where I’ve had amazing experiences wi

th sea otters, kelp crab simultaneously diving seconds before a Giant Pacific Octopus rose up to my canoe while harvesting the kelp, and so many other stories. But that’s for another article.  I’ll just say that before continuing here, be sure to bookmark for later reading the most erudite information about seaweeds in the Pacific Northwest which is found in articles by Ryan Drum, Ph.D., including his Sea Vegetables For Food & Medicine and his Medicinal Uses of Seaweeds  and Bullwhip Kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana): The World’s Tastiest and Easiest Kelp To Eat.

I’ve taken a couple classes from Ryan, and he points out that all seaweeds on our coast, north of California, are edible if they look healthy. However, like any food, any seaweed should be considered individually based on what kind of nutrition a person needs. Comparing one seaweed to another is like comparing the health benefits of a meat to a nut, or a carrot to some lettuce. Some have high amounts of iodine, which most people are deficient in, but which can toxify and possibly kill you if you eat too much. Basically, research your dietary and medicinal needs before consuming a more than one meal of seaweed.

Recommended Seaweed Book, Resources & Cliff Notes

It’s really nice to have the EZ Guide to Seaweeds of the Salish Sea on hand when out on the beach, but otherwise, you have to get Pacific Seaweeds – A Gude to Common Seaweeds of the West Coast – 2016 Updated and Expanded Edition, by Louis D. Druehl & Bridgette E. Clarkston, is by far the best field guide to seaweeds. It’s such a good book, that no cliff notes are required. Just get it, read it, and use it in the field.

Seaweeds of the Pacific Coast by by Jennifer & Jeff Mondragon used to be the best book for seaweed identification before Pacific Seaweeds (above) camp along. This erstwhile book has color photos, and the following pages are important to study:

Sea Vegetables by Evelyn McConnaughey is good food gathering and preparation, with the following pages important to study:

  • Pg. 32-33: Intertidal Zones Seaweeds are found in.
  • Pg. 37: How to Harvest
  • Pg. 39-41: Preserving the Harvest
  • Pg. 45-52: Seaweed Nutrition
  • Pg. 58-61: Seaweed Nutrition/$ Charts

Seaweed by Valerie Cooksley is great for health and medicine, with the following pages important to study:

  • Pg. 16-24: Seaweed Nutrition
  • Pg. 163-179: Key Seaweeds

Vegetables from the Sea by Seibin & Teruko Arasaki is for in-depth learning, with the following pages important to study:

  • Pg. 32-33: Chemical Compositions
  • Pg. 44-46: Vitamins & Minerals in comparison to plants.
  • Pg. 96-128: Key to Seaweed ID
  • Pg. 129: World Distribution of Major Seaweeds

Learn how to confidently identify plants using their unique family patterns in this in-depth video by author of Botany in a Day, Thomas Elpel!

*** For educational purposes only.  This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  We recommend that you consult with a qualified health care practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing or on any medications. ***

*** Please read our Honorable Harvesting Guidelines before harvesting any plant material.  The final guideline is of utmost importance:  “Never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100% sure it is safe to ingest.” ***

Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp & School of Natural Science. For in-depth learning, join our Weekly Online Classes:

  • Tuesday Classes focus on Herbal Medicine & Plant Crafts in the autumn season, followed by Gardening & Cooking Wild Edible Food Plants in the spring.
  • Thursday Classes focus on Wilderness Survival & Bushcraft Skills in the Autumn Season, followed by Wildlife Tracking & Birding in the spring.
  • Saturday Classes for all ages guide you through the Wolf Journey Earth Conservation Course – Book One: The Neighborhood Naturalist.

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