The Most Common Types of Shellfish in British Columbia Waters
With so many species of fish living in BC waters, there is something to fish for at practically anytime of year, including many types of shellfish. In our previous posts covering all the different kinds of fish in BC waters, we’ve touched on the highly sought-after pacific salmon, trout, and groundfish that draw anglers to the West Coast of Canada. To round out the series, we thought we’d end with another extremely popular type of fish our region is known for: shellfish.
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What are Shellfish?
The term shellfish is a colloquial term referring to an extremely broad category of aquatic (water-dwelling) invertebrates. The term covers two main types of aquatic invertebrates: shelled mollusks like oysters and clams, and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. Shellfish are not actually fish – they are simply a certain type of animal that live in water. The term shellfish is used by fisheries and the medical and restaurant industries to group together edible marine invertebrates.
In British Columbia, the most common types of shellfish that anglers target include oysters, clams, prawns, crabs, scallops, shrimp, krill, geoducks, and red and green sea urchins. In BC, octopus, sea cucumbers, and squid are also managed as shellfish, as per the DFO.
Notice how there are no lobsters on this list? Lobsters are plentiful in the Atlantic Ocean, but not so much here in the Pacific.
Below is our breakdown of the most common types of shellfish found in British Columbia.
Oysters are saltwater bivalve mollusks that stay rooted in place for most of their lives. There are two main types of oysters found in BC – the Olympia Oyster and the Pacific Oyster. Olympia oysters are the smaller of the two and are the only native oyster on the BC coast. It is illegal to keep Olympia oysters due to their dwindling population.
Pacific oysters are the main type of oyster cultured in southern BC waters. They are thicker and larger than Olympia oysters, with a rougher appearance. They come in a number of coloured patterns including browns, greens, and greys with purple fluting. The harvesting of oysters can be done by gathering them up from their beds, either by hand, rake, or special tongs.
Clams are another type of bivalve mollusk that are smaller, smoother, and shinier than oysters. Unlike oysters, clams are not rooted to one spot for the duration of their lives. Like oysters, harvesting of clams is done by hand or short / long-handled forks or rakes, depending on the species. Common clam species in BC include: razor clams, butter clams, littleneck clams, Manila clams, and varnish clams. There are also geoduck clams, a somewhat more distinctive clam species with a large visible siphon (neck) and more rectangular shell shape.
Harvesting undersized clams is prohibited, and size limits vary per type of clam. On top of that, certain areas are closed to clam harvesting, due to biotoxins present in the water. Always be sure to check the area’s closure notices before consuming clams in these areas.
Mussels are bivalve mollusks similar to clams. Blue mussels are the most commonly found mussels in BC. They have bluish-black shells and a distinctive “D” or flattened teardrop shape. Their interior is a pearly violet or white colour. Mussels in BC live on calm shores in the intertidal zone, latching onto surfaces with their strong byssal threads.
Scallops are yet another common type of marine bivalve mollusk that can be found in BC, particularly the Pink scallop and the Spiny scallop. Spiny scallops are reddish-brown and Pink scallops are pinkish-white. Other types of scallops are farmed throughout the BC coast due to their popularity with seafood lovers. When you think of a seashell – the first image that comes to mind is likely that of the fan-shaped scallop shell.
Crabs are crustaceans that live pretty much in every ocean around the world. In BC, the Dungeness crab is the most important species of crab sought after by commercial fishermen. They have oval bodies that range from yellow-brown to purplish in colour, four pairs of walking legs, and claws with light-coloured tips. Redrock crabs can also be found in BC. These are the crabs that have the brick red backs, white bellies, and Black-tipped claws.
Because crabs are targeted by so many groups, their harvesting is monitored and regulated heavily throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Shrimp are small, aquatic, decapod crustaceans, meaning they have exoskeletons and 10 legs. There are seven species of shrimp that commercial fishermen trawl for in BC, including Coonstripe or Dock shrimp, humpback or king shrimp, smooth pink or ocean pink shrimp, spiny pink shrimp, spot shrimp, sidestride or giant shrimp.
Prawns are the largest of the seven commercial species of shrimp in British Columbian waters, with some distinctive differences that set them apart from other shrimp. They are slightly larger than other shrimp and have three sets of claws as legs instead of two. In the kitchen, prawns and shrimp are prepared in similar ways and have similar textures and tastes.
Prawns have smooth glossy bodies and vary in colour from a dark red to an orange-red or pink with several white lines running horizontally across their head.
Abalone are marine gastropod mollusks, a.k.a. sea snails, that come in a range of sizes. They have oval shells with irregular reddish or greenish upper surfaces. Their shells are sometimes marked with blue or white, while the iridescent white shell interior has a faint pink and green sheen. Abalone, once poached for their decorative shells and their meat, were considered to be a delicacy.
Due to overharvesting, harvesting abalone from the ocean is illegal. In BC, it’s the only species of shellfish that is completely banned from harvesting.
Sea urchins are not mollusks and they are not crustaceans, yet they fall under the shellfish category. They are managed as shellfish by the DFO, and people who suffer from shellfish allergies must also avoid sea urchins.
Sea urchins are spherical and are covered with hundreds of spikey, moveable spines that look like brush bristles. They grip the seabed with their five tube-like feet. There are hundred of species of urchins in oceans around the world, with the red sea urchins (with longer spines) and green sea urchins (with shorter spines) most common and sought after in BC due to their large lobes. Sea urchins are mainly harvested for their roe (a.k.a. gonads or uni), which has a buttery texture and distinct ocean flavour.
Krill are tiny crustaceans found in oceans everywhere. Considered zooplankton, krill are an extremely important part of the food chain – they are what feed and nourish countless species of fish and marine mammals. Krill are harvested commercially mainly for fish food to be used in aquariums or in aquaculture and much less than the others for human food.
Sea cucumbers are long and cylindrical, hence the name, with tube-like feet that allow them to walk on the ocean floor and tentacles that help them feed. There are about 30 species of sea cucumbers in BC, with the biggest being the giant red sea cucumber at about 2-feet long and weighing up to 1 kg.
Sea cucumbers consist of a firm outer skin and a thick inner muscle with five tendons. The tendons are considered the sea cucumber meat (edible, quite tasty, and used in a variety of dishes). Sea cucumbers are also harvested for their skin, which has health benefits as well as nutritional value.
Unlike the salmon, trout, and groundfish of the region, shellfish come with strict warnings around their harvesting and consumption. Some shellfish, especially raw bivalve shellfish that are considered “filter feeders” can carry bacteria, viruses and toxins that can cause foodborne illness. Some shellfish are also often consumed raw, thereby increasing the risk factor. It’s always very important to harvest, store, handle, and prepare shellfish appropriately to avoid getting sick or worse.
For more information on shellfish harvesting, review the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Guides on:
- Dangers of illegal harvesting
- Shellfish harvesting map reference guide
- Shellfish food safety tips
- Pacific region shellfish harvesting map
The DFO’s shellfish harvesting guide covers things like identification charts, fishing gear recommendations, general tips, and packaging and storage information. Always check for marine biotoxin and sanitary contamination closures in the area where you are intending on harvesting.
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