14 wild edibles you can pull right out of the ocean
The bounty of the marine environment is astounding, with delicious meals made available from a staggering variety of natural items.
This story was originally featured on Field & Stream.
The bounty of the marine and brackish water environment is astounding, with delicious meals made available from foraging a staggering variety of natural items, often ignored by anglers focused on just catching fish.
One Saturday night, my wife and I returned from a dinner out, and as a lark, I suggested we walk down to our community dock to see if anyone was there, cast-netting for shrimp. In years passed, I simply monitored the shrimp run as an observer, mostly interested in bait shrimp for fishing. But this year was different, said one of our neighbors, and cast-netting had been fantastic. My wife agreed to have a look, and we strolled onto the pier to find it in total shrimping bedlam.
A couple dozen neighbors and friends were casting nets helter-skelter, opening and filling coolers—lids askew, barely containing the burgeoning kicking and jumping crustaceans. I decided to join in the fun by hauling out an 8-foot cast net from my boat that was hovering on a dock lift.
I cast the net, and it fanned out and sank a few feet below the dark, running tidal river. But before it hit bottom, it welled up toward the surface. There were so many shrimp in the net they pulled it to the top. I quickly hauled on the net line, pulled it to the dock with all my strength, and dumped its contents onto the boards. Well over 100 big shrimp flipped and flopped around. My wife and I stood dumbstruck gawking at the catch until she looked at me and said, “You just caught enough shrimp for a family dinner at Red Lobster.”
That started a passion for shrimping that still burns strong. Not every year is a great one off our dock, but they occur frequently enough that I've tapped some of the best shrimp cast-netters in the area to learn some of their tricks. Local knowledge is key, since often some of the best edibles along our coasts are largely overlooked by even seasoned anglers. Here are some more coastal edibles to whet your appetite.
Catching marine shrimp (brown, white, and pink) in Atlantic and Gulf tidewaters can be done several ways. In running tide areas that neck-down between coastal islands, passes, spits of land, and tidal bars, use fine-mesh dip nets. You can fish this way for shrimp at night under lights near bridges, docks, and jetties as well.
Shrimp are more commonly caught with cast nets, with fine 1/4-inch mesh often preferred. Day shrimping can be good, but it’s mostly deep-water work in 15- to 30-foot-deep water with nets and extra-long rope. It can be productive, especially when using boat sonar to pinpoint shrimp concentrations. But it is far more grueling because of the depth, and the muscle required to haul 10- to 15-pound nets (plus shrimp) following numerous casts.
Shallow-water shrimping is more the norm, as it's less taxing on the body and an ideal fun family activity. It can be done from anchored boats, but docks and jetties where the tide flows near deep water can offer great results.
Late summer and autumn shallow-water shrimping is often done using fish meal “bait” to attract shrimp to an area for cast-netting. Bait, about the size of small dog biscuits, can be purchased from a coastal feed, hardware, or tackle store.
Fine powdery fish meal bait is also effective, with shrimpers wetting the powder and adding equal parts baking flour and rock salt, plus several cans of fish-scented canned cat food. The mixture is made into patties and tossed in 3 to 8 feet of water where shrimp “run” to attract them for netting. Many shrimpers place lights or lanterns near baited areas, which is believed to attract shrimp, too.
Be sure to check state regulations on seasons and areas open to recreational shrimping, as well as catch limits and limitations on gear.
2. Blue crabs
Rare is the person who doesn’t like steamed crabs or crab cakes. That’s why live crabs sell in some areas for $30 to $70 per dozen, and jumbo lump back-fin crab meat commonly sells for over $40 per pound (if you can find it).
Many folks on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts can beat the high commercial crab prices by catching their own crustaceans. Catch blue crabs from tidal banks, docks, and bridges by simply soaking a chicken neck or wing tied to a stout cord. When a crab grabs the bait, you can feel the line move and slowly lift the crab toward the surface to be netted. Special tight-mesh crab nets are sold in coastal areas for this purpose.
Some serious blue crabbers stretch lengthy cord between posts in shallow tidal areas, with a dozen or more baits hanging below off various lines. It’s done in shallow tidewater, and by wading along the long cord, multiple baited lines can be tended.
Commercial heavy-wire “lift traps” for blue crabs also are available, whereby a bait is placed at the bottom in the center, and the trap is lowered in deeper water with a line tied to it at the top. When line tension is released from the trap, it opens in a four-sided pattern, making the bait available to any nearby crab. When hauled up, the sides close from the top, catching crustaceans inside.
Larger commercial-type crab traps measuring several feet square also are readily available in coastal regions. Such traps sell for $25 to $50 each and can hold considerable bait and crabs. Traps can be placed in tidewater off docks, bulkheads, bridges, and suspended from floats almost anywhere. Their advantage is that a dozen or more crabs can be collected per trap, and the trap need not be tended for it to capture crabs.
3. Dungeness crabs
Large square traps also work well for catching Dungeness crabs along the Pacific Coast. They are delicious and generally larger than blue crabs. Crab trap success is dependent on using fresh baits, usually fish. Shad, menhaden, mullet, and fish heads and viscera from filleting are ideal crab baits. For both blue and Dungeness crabs, be sure to check with state laws governing crab traps, the number that can be used by recreational harvesters, and areas allowed for crabbing.
4. Stone crabs
Stone Crabs are common in all Gulf Coast States—though not as widely distributed as blue crabs—from North Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. The primary target from Georgia through Florida is the Florida stone crab. The Gulf stone crab is a closely-related species and is caught and eaten the same ways.
Stone crabs have much larger and more powerful claws than blue crabs, making their identification easy in blue crab waters. Stone crab claws make up almost half a crab’s weight, and they’re powerful enough to crush a mature oyster, which is one of its primary foods.
Only the claws of stone crabs are harvested since when removed and released back into the wild, new ones will grow back. There are state size and number limits on stone crab claws that can be harvested by recreational collectors. One popular way to cook stone crab claws is to crack them open and sauté the meat in olive oil and lemon juice with salt and pepper to taste. It’s delicious hot, but can be refrigerated and served cold with a horseradish sauce.
5. Spider crabs
The common spider crab on the East Coast ranges from Nova Scotia through Florida and the Gulf Coast. Larger spider crabs also inhabit the Pacific Coast, including California.
Spider crabs are not as commonly collected for food as some other species, but larger ones can be delicious. In the Florida Keys, lobster seekers frequently find spider crabs under rock ledges and reefs. They can easily be caught by hand, though they do have powerful claws that can inflict damage.
Along the Pacific Coast, pier fishermen regularly catch them using live bait and hooks and lift or umbrella nets.
Spider crabs can be steamed and eaten whole, like blue or Dungeness crabs. But many Floridians clean them first by removing the larger carapace shell, halving the crab, and placing the pieces with large pincers attached in boiling salted water.
6. Bay scallops
The little bay scallop is a delicious bivalve mollusk that’s indigenous throughout the East Coast of the US from New England to Florida and along the Gulf Coast to Texas.
Bay scallops measure up to 4 inches across, and their shells are the classic shape of the Shell Oil gas station logo. Unlike oysters, some clams, and mussels, only a portion of the mollusk—the adductor muscle—is eaten once the shell is open. The meat is savory, delicate, and sweet.
Scallops are collected several ways, depending on water clarity, the depth they’re found, and the time of year. Small weedy bays and sheltered areas are common places to look. In clear-water shallow areas with warm climates, such as Florida’s Upper Gulf Coast, snorkeling and diving to collect bay scallops by hand is a popular family activity. It’s done in summer from flotillas of small boats that prowl in water from knee-high to 8 feet deep.
Because scallops are bivalves and they filter near-shore saltwater, they are subject to collecting impurities in some regional waters. For this reason, collecting scallops for human consumption is unlawful in some coastal areas, and ingesting scallops from such regions can be a health hazard. All scallop harvesters should check carefully with local and state marine officials to learn if scallops are safe to harvest and eat in their area.
Another bivalve requiring harvest only from pristine, state-approved waters is the oyster. Recreational harvesting is practiced from Maine to Florida, along the Gulf to Texas, and along the Pacific Coast. Most states have websites listing open season dates, times of day, harvest limits, and regions where harvesting is lawful (due to water quality). Some states also prohibit the sale of recreationally-harvested oysters, and fishing licenses can be required.
In regions where tide differentials are big, such as Georgia, parts of Florida, and the Carolinas, low tide is best for easy harvest of oysters. Bars of oysters are exposed, and large “rakes” of shellfish can be collected with relative ease during low tides. Wear heavy-duty protective gloves for this, as oysters have razor-sharp shells.
Low tide is also prime time for Pacific Coast oyster harvesting along rocky beaches, such as those found in Washington, Oregon, and parts of Northern California.
Oyster recipes can run the gamut from raw to steamed to fancy preparations like oysters Rockefeller and oysters casino.
Clams and mussels are foraged in many ways, and some are truly ingenious. In sandy tidewater areas, people wade along and feel clams on the bottom with their feet, then scoop them up and stow them in a mesh bag tied to their waist or suspended in a small floating tube.
Sometimes mussels such as quahogs and surf clams (common to Maine and other parts of New England) can be found at low tides on tidal flats and even on pristine beaches.
In some areas, small specially-designed dredges are used by recreational harvesters, with the size and shape of such dredges designated by state laws. Most coastal states list where clams and mussels can be safely harvested, and those areas are subject to change. Also check with state authorities on, seasons, limits, and licenses.
For many clam species, specialized rakes or shovels are used during low tides in beach areas of sand, gravel, and mud. This occurs on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, chiefly for hard-shell varieties such as littlenecks, razor, butter, and Manila clams.
Great eating clams and mussels can be found almost anywhere there’s tidewater. But they’re bivalves that naturally cleanse water of impurities, so only the most pristine, clean waters should be targeted for collecting them.
9. Razor clams
Razor clams are often found several feet deep, especially on broad low-tide beaches in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Washington. There, at low tide, people walk hard-packed sand and look for “dimples” made by buried razor clams. Pounding the packed sand with a foot or flat part of a shovel can agitate a buried clam, causing it to make a dimple at the surface. By using a special tube or “clam gun” (a 4-foot-long piece of 6-inch diameter aluminum pipe with a handle at one end, open at the other), razor clams can be pulled out of the sand. The “gun” is pushed into the sand and a tube of sand (with clam) is extracted onto the beach surface.
On the East Coast, from Canada to South Carolina, the Atlantic jackknife clam (also called a razor clam, but smaller than the Pacific variety) is sought in intertidal bays and estuaries. They can also be dug out with a clam gun, and some folks simply pour salt into the dimples, which causes the clam to dig to the surface where it can be collected.
All clams can be cooked in many ways. Simple steaming with light seasoning or a dash of lemon is a popular way of eating them. Smaller, sweet clams can be quickly steamed in their own juices in a microwave. Large clams are sometimes chopped to make tender (a food processor works well for this), then made into clam cakes, fritters, or chowder.
While arguably not as abundant nor as widely distributed as clams, marine mussels are found in plenty of areas on both the east and west coasts of America. The most important varieties are likely the California mussel and the blue or common mussel. Both are elongated in shape, longer than they are wide, thus distinguishing them from more rounded clams.
The California mussel is found in very salty, low sediment areas from Alaska to Mexico. Blue mussels can be found on both of America’s coasts, and prefer the cooler waters of Maine and New England.
Recreational harvesting of mussels is usually done by hand at low tide, with clusters of the mollusks located in intertidal regions near rock outcroppings, and hard-bottom areas.
Mussels are generally more tender, and the complete mollusk is consumed. They are delicious steamed and dipped in lemon butter, and when eaten with linguine, they are a delicacy.
11. Spiny lobster
The spiny lobster is part of a large worldwide family of crustaceans that resemble true lobsters, but without their menacing claws. Recreational harvesting of spiny lobsters is done throughout the U.S. coastlines, though chiefly in Florida and California.
From about Stuart, Florida, north through Georgia and the Carolinas, scuba divers do well on spiny lobsters around reefs, ledges, and hard-bottom areas. On the east coast of Florida, lobster divers work near-shore reefs from boats and beaches.
The bulk of recreational diving for Florida lobsters is done in the Florida Keys, where spiny lobsters are found under small rocky shelves, near reefs, and around jetties. During very popular seasons, flotillas of boats with all manner of snorkelers and scuba divers hit the water seeking “bugs.” Legal-sized lobsters are hand caught for steaming, grilling, dipping in lemon-butter, and eating.
California’s spiny lobster fishing is good, and the bugs are big. It’s done mostly with specialized lift hoop nets that are typically baited with fish heads in 6- to 30-foot-deep water. This is often done at night from boats, but also from jetties and breakwalls where lawful.
Carefully check state regulations as lobstering everywhere is regulated to seasons, size, methods used, and number taken.
The periwinkle is a small marine snail commonly found in coastal, intertidal areas of the northeastern United States and Maritime Provinces of Canada. While originally native to Europe, they were introduced to America nearly 200 years ago, and can now be found as far south as Maryland and on the West Coast from Washington to California.
Periwinkles can live in very deep water, but collecting them is mostly done by beachcombers around rocky shorelines and jetty areas in clean-water habitats during low tide. Harvesters should check with state agencies to learn waters where periwinkles can be taken and are safe to eat.
While periwinkles are small, they produce a surprisingly large volume of meat. After boiling them in seasoned water, remove the cooked meat from the shells with a pin or stout toothpick. It takes a good number of periwinkles to satisfy a hungry appetite, but they are delicious when smothered in garlic butter, and they make an especially delectable appetizer.
13. Sea urchins
Divers seeking lobsters, scallops, and other marine life regularly cross paths with sea urchins, and rather than avoid them, some folks are harvesting them. The thought of eating the terrifying spiny sea urchin is mind-boggling to many Americans, but the raw reproductive organs in both male and female specimens are considered high culinary delicacies in Asia, along the West Coast of the U.S., and among some indigenous people, including those in parts of coastal Alaska.
Hundreds of different kinds of sea urchins inhabit the marine world, from deep to shallow water. Some varieties resemble a black tennis ball with dozens of oversized black hat pins protruding from them. Other sea urchins are less menacing, with short, dull spines.
All sea urchins demand respect during harvesting, and it’s wise to wear sturdy gloves. Urchins should be kept alive in boat wells, buckets, and on ice in coolers until ready for preparation and eating.
Eating a sea urchin appears a daunting task, but it’s not too difficult. Use sharp scissors or game shears to cut a 2-inch round hole on its underside. Remove the cut portion of the urchin and drain it of fluid and internal organs. This should reveal the gonads, which are orange colored and can be abundant. Add a dash of pepper, hot sauce, soy sauce, lemon, or lime to compliment the flavor.
14. Edible seaweed
Eating seaweed has been popular for decades in Asia, and recently, along the West Coast of the US, people have been foraging for fresh marine seaweed at low tide. This has become so popular in some places, that Washington, Oregon, and California all regulate seaweed harvest with seasons, limits, and legal areas.
A wide variety of nutritious, healthy seaweed types are available. Some of the more popular kinds include sea lettuce, Irish moss, bladderwrack, dulse, and feather boa kelp. While most types of seaweed are edible, some varieties like acid kelp can cause internal distress. Unlike mushrooms, however, marine seaweed is very safe to eat.
Each type of seaweed can be prepared differently, from drying and eating as a snack to preparing like spinach, making into tea, seasoning meat, and making sauces. In some West Coast regions, there are even classes available to teach newbies what the best seaweeds are for various uses.
Some kayakers are seasoned seaweed foragers since they’re able to reach areas that many land-based folks can’t. All that’s needed to harvest seaweed is a pair of scissors and a plastic bag. And since some varieties of seaweed grow at a rate of two feet per day, snipping off the leafy portions for human consumption isn’t likely to adversely affect the environment.