Field Trip: Foraging for Wild Mussels

steamed wild mussels in the shellpescadero tide pools 2

If you love spending time at the beach and happily go to great lengths to enjoy fresh seafood, then you might want to try foraging for wild mussels. Gathering the fruit of the sea with nothing but the sound of the waves in your ears and the feel of the sun, wind and water on your skin is pure bliss. Throw in some tide pooling and a marine mammal sighting and you’ve just described my idea of heaven!

Pescadero mussel foragersMy husband and I took advantage of the negative tide on March 10th and had an absolute blast! And later that day, we had one of the best dinners ever.

Pescadero wild mussels 2 We chose a quiet secluded spot and set to work.

Pescadero wild musselsSection 29.10a of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife 2013 – 2014  California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations booklet states very clearly that “saltwater mollusks (which includes wild mussels) may be taken only on hook and line or with the hands.” Tools such as crowbars, shovels and screwdrivers are NOT allowed. I do however recommend a good pair of gloves to help you grip the slippery little suckers – I especially like gloves with rubber coated fingertips. Whenever I read about people using crowbars to pry mussels off the rocks, I get rather annoyed. If someone like me, a middle aged woman with arthritis in one hand, can collect wild mussels by hand, then so can you!


This image is a great example of why the use of tools is prohibited -they harm other residents of the intertidal zone, such as this little chiton. A person wielding a crowbar is much more likely to cause serious damage to the environment than someone collecting mussels by hand.

Pescadero wild mussels 1

Besides rubber tipped gloves, I also recommend wearing old clothes and rubber soled shoes that can get wet. Because, make no mistake, you will get wet!

mussels in buckets

A short time later, we had collected our ten pound – in the shell – limit.

Pescadero splash 1As I fetched a bucket of seawater to pour over our mussels for the ride home, I turned my back to the ocean (shame on me). Sure enough, a wave splashed me from behind!

soaked 1  Yes, I got soaked.

soaked 3 frontal

I didn’t really care, but having a dry pair of pants to change into would have been nice.

mussel tag-a-long

 This cute little crab tried to hitch a ride home with us in our bucket …

mussel tag-a-long 2

mussels on tray

Back at home, we separated out three dozen mussels that we would be cleaning and steaming for dinner. We placed the remaining mussels on clean jelly roll pans, covered them with a damp dish towels and placed them the refrigerator overnight. The mussels that were destined for supper were first examined – any with cracked shells should be discarded – and then gently put into a bowl of cold water (this helps filter out sand that may be trapped inside their shells). Then we went to work cleaning and de-bearding each mussel. Two other things to keep in mind: if a mussel opens slightly, tap it gently. If the mussel closes, it’s alive; otherwise, it’s dead and should be discarded. Also, mussels shouldn’t be kept in fresh water for more than thirty minutes; any longer and they’ll die.

mussel beard barnacles

Under running water, scrape the barnacles off each mussel with a knife, de-beard the mussel and scrub it with a plastic bristle brush.

mussel beardWild mussels have very thick beards (these images really don’t show the worst of it). To de-beard a mussel, grasp the hairs and tug on them, jerking back and forth.

cleaned mussel 2

If you manage to completely de-beard the mussel, it will look like this. It isn’t easy – my hands were very sore from all the tugging. Another option is to remove the beard after the mussels have been steamed. If you choose this method, don’t expect to serve the mussels straight out of the shell. I’ve tried both methods and find it much easier to de-beard the mussels after steaming – making this my method of choice when the mussels are destined for a pasta sauce, soup or stew. Either way, you should still scrape off the barnacles and scrub each mussel clean before you steam them.

cleaned mussels in yellow bowlWe worked quickly, with two bowls, assembly line style. Mussels waiting to be cleaned were at one end of the line in one bowl and mussels that were clean and ready to steam were at the other end of the line, in a second bowl.

mussels ready to steam

Once the mussels are clean, they’re ready to be steamed. Gently remove them from the cold water and place them in a pan with a small amount of water. Place a tight fitting lid on the the pan and place it over medium to medium high heat. The mussels will take about eight minutes to steam.

steamed mussels in panWhen the mussels are cooked, they open to reveal their beautiful orange flesh. Don’t add too much water to the pan prior to cooking because wild mussels release an enormous amount of delicious liquid, which you’ll want to keep and use for a sauce, soup or stew. The mussels may also release sand (especially if you are de-bearding after steaming), which you’ll want to strain or decant out.

steamed wild mussels in the shell

These wild mussels were from the batch that I meticulously de-bearded prior to steaming. Aren’t they beautiful? Wild mussels have incredible flavor and although it may sound like a cliché, they really do taste like the sea itself.

mussels in marinare sauce 1

We added our steamed wild mussels, and their flavorful liquid, to a homemade marinara sauce. Tossed with linguini and served with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc – it was delicious!

mussels in marinara sauce 2

If you’d like to try foraging for wild mussels in California, please follow these steps:

First: call the California Shellfish Biotoxin Information Line at 1-800-553-4133.

This will tell you if wild mussels are safe for human consumption. Generally, California sea mussels (Mytilus californianus) and California bay mussels (Mytilus trossulus) are under quarantine from May 1st through October 31st in order to protect the public against deadly paralytic shellfish poisoning and domoic acid poisoning, but the California Department of Public Health may begin the quarantine early, or extend it, if test results indicate that dangerous levels of biotoxins are present. Always call the hotline before collecting or consuming wild shellfish as cooking does not destroy the biotoxins, and there are no known antidotes. Death can occur within 30 minutes of eating toxic shellfish.

Step 2: check the tide charts – collecting mussels is best done during very low tide.

Step 3: purchase a fishing license.  I purchased my one-day sport fishing license online from the State of California, Department of Fish and Wildlife website. The system accepts both Visa and Mastercard and allows you to self print short-term licenses. The process could not have been easier. Be sure to carry your license (in a zip-lock bag) on you while foraging; otherwise you risk stiff fines and penalties.
Step 4: read the updated rules and obey the limit.  Section 29.10a of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife 2013 – 2014 California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations booklet states that “saltwater mollusks (which includes wild mussels) may be taken only on hook and line or with the hands.” Tools such as crowbars, shovels and screwdrivers are not allowed. Section 29.55 limits each California permit holder to no more than ten pounds (in the shell) of California bay or sea mussels, combined.
Step 5:  have fun!

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