How To Open Shellfish

All along the beach at Nanaimo are the broken shells of shellfish. The gulls and other shorebirds have figured out that the rocks are a great place to smash open these little calcium carbonate structures in order to feed on the inhabitants

If you have seen The Lion King, you know all about the circle of life, so this should not be distressing to you, unless you are a vegan, of course. What might distress you, however, is the knowledge that some of those shellfish are not for human consumption. They contain biotoxins which are unsafe.

In fact, there are signs up telling humans not to harvest the oysters (the royal family of shellfish) for that reason. There are many other places on Vancouver Island where oysters can safely be harvested, but not here. I don’t know why but it probably has something to do with the ferries, sea planes, and motorized vessels of various kinds that gather in the area. Here only seabirds can harvest biotoxin-saturated shellfish. That seems to be to be cruel to the gulls, but I don’t think there is anything anyone can do about that. The circle of life doesn’t read warning signs.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control has provided a handy map to tell us where it is and is not safe to harvest shellfish. It also tells us that, near where I live there is a: “SANITARY CLOSURE17.40 ISSUANCE DATEAugust 8, 2022 CLOSURE SPECIESAll bivalve shellfish including butter clams, geoduck clams, horse clams, littleneck clams, manila clams, cockles, razor clams, softshell clams, varnish clams, mussels, oysters, pink scallops, scallops, spiny scallops.”

Since I cannot tell a butter clam from a pink scallop, I think I’ll try not to gather my supper from the beach. I’ll stick to the grocery store. If you are a gull, though, you are free to take your chances. There are lots of rocks you can use to harvest your meal.


Postscript: Here is a helpful article explaining the reasons why there are varying levels of mercury in sea food.


Post-Postscript: This summer’s drought has caused additional problems with shellfish poisoning. The west coast of Vancouver Island is now closed to harvesting and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is patrolling to make sure people are aware of the problem and the closure.

See the article today (October 27) on CBC News online.


  1. The levels of toxins in most/ much sea life – mercury for one – should be enough cause for concern to reconsider eating anything pulled from the sea!
    Maybe by the time toxins
    reach near lethal levels there won’t be enough marine life to make any sort of commercial fishing worthwhile?

    1. Hmm. You make an interesting point. I know how important fishing is to local communities so this has to be a huge concern. I will have to find out more about it.

      I have now added a link to an article that discusses the sources of mercury in seafood.

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