Can You Dig It? // Shellfishing on Bainbridge and Puget Sound

By Nanda Olney

Puget sound yields an abundance of edible wildlife, but shellfish are perhaps among the most fun to find and catch. More than just a chance to play on the beach, shellfishing brings families and friends together and nothing beats the joy of digging out that first clam or pulling up a pot full of wriggling crab.

Nature is bountiful and delicious. Just ask Langdon Cook, author of “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager” and coleader of the annual spring class Shellfish Foraging and Cooking that is available through the parks district. Participants dig for shellfish and prepare their bounty on camp stoves on the beach. “Shellfishing is about getting outside, becoming familiar with your landscape and enjoying its wild bounty,” Cook said.

The most popular shellfish to forage recreationally in the summer are clams and crab. Oysters spawn in the summer and are typically harvested in cooler months. Manila and littleneck clams, however, can be harvested year round and are relatively easy to find around Puget Sound. All you need to start the hunt is a small garden cultivator or your bare hands. Manila and littlenecks hang out only a few inches below the sand’s surface at low tide. Point White is a great spot to try your luck.

For those who are landlocked, consider dropping a baited crab pot or ring off one of the island’s public beaches and wait for the tides to deliver up a prize of Dungeness and red rock crab. The simple beauty of crabbing is that you can set out in nothing more than an inflatable vessel or even drop your pot from the end of a pier. Locally, Blakely Harbor is typically teeming with crab in summer months.

Adventurous Bainbridge Island crabbers can be seen throughout the summer paddling kayaks or paddleboards to haul in their catch. The barriers to entry for shellfishing are low. Licenses are available through the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce or online through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

All shellfish licenses are under $20, a cost that can be recouped in a single day’s catch. Pay close attention to the rules and restrictions on the WDFW website, and carry a gauge to ensure you’re harvesting only legally permitted bounty.

Keep in mind that not all beaches are created equal. The shellfish safety map on the Washington State Department of Health website is updated daily with water conditions and beach closures, warning fishers about dangerous toxins and pollutants. Stick to public beaches that have been deemed safe.

Unfortunately, areas around the Sound’s central basin are frequently closed to shellfishing due to pollutants. According to Brian Allen, a programs director with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, we should all rally around concerns for local water quality. Continued pollution of the Sound threatens our access to shellfishing and other marine resources.

Allen suggests that we all help by considering the impact of our own household on our immediate surroundings. “Septic functioning, run-off from your property and everything that goes through your drains has a direct impact on our local water quality,” he said.

With a goal of raising awareness and restoring local oyster habitats, the PSRF’s outreach efforts include the operation of a community shellfish farm on the tidelands of Bloedel Reserve. It also hosts an annual seed sale for tideland owners interested in growing oysters privately.

Many locals know that after a day of shellfishing, there’s nothing better than enjoying the spoils of the hunt. Nothing says summer like gathering with family and friends for a crab boil and digging in to heaps of fresh, succulent crab. Author Cook specializes in mouth-watering steamed clam dishes.

“Clams carry a secret ingredient in their shells called the liquor, which marries beautifully with other ingredients. You only need a few,” he said. For a simple, delicious dish, he recommends steamed clams with white wine, garlic and parsley.