Mussel foraging season runs from fall into spring in California. Here’s our guide to some of the more intricate details of our tasty coastal companions along with three great local beaches for foraging.
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With their brindle white, blue and black coloring, mussels are the oft-overlooked species of the tide pool, being neither flashy nor rare. But for myself and other mussel foragers, they are the star of the coastline.
I started mussel foraging as a way to engage more with the nearby ocean. As someone who has lived in Santa Cruz County for almost a decade, I’ve yet to familiarize myself with the local marine wildlife.
Most anyone who has visited a beach within 100 miles of Santa Cruz County can identify a mussel shell. But in any case, here’s a refresher on some of the more intricate details of our tasty coastal companions along with three great local beaches for foraging.
What are they?
Mussels are a kind of bivalve (largely meaning they have two relatively flat, compressed shells, a hinge, and a meaty body). More generally, they are also a member of the mollusk family.
California is home to two different kinds of mussels: the larger California sea mussel (Mytilus californianus) and the smaller bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus). Both mussel varieties are edible and plentiful, but for foraging purposes, the California sea mussel is what’s nearest at hand — it lives along the shore, especially on coastal shelves — whereas the bay mussel lives a little farther out to sea, inhabiting piers, floating marinas, jetties and the like.
The California sea mussel can be found along the entirety of the California coastline — they are native from the southern portion of Baja California, Mexico, to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. To the delight of foragers, sea mussels colonize the shore in large swaths and can be found in the intertidal zone where waves break on the land, partially submerged depending on the tide.
Mussels adhere to rock by digging out pockets in the substrate and taking root via the mussel’s beard, or strands of what look like hair but are actually bundles of excreted and hardened filament called the byssus. They then knot these strands to each other, forming a strong network beneath the overlying layer of mussels.
How do you retrieve them?
While mussels are easy to harvest, it takes a practiced technique to dislodge them from their perch. Simply grab hold of the mussel body and twist until it comes off. I say “simply,” but in full transparency, it takes a few tries to get the technique down. Essentially, you are breaking the beard’s bond with the substrate and surrounding mussels, which, until then, was solidly anchored against waves and other sea life. When the mussel comes free, it will have a chunk of beard attached to its foot.
California regulates how you can harvest mussels, and how many. Mussels must be harvested by hand. Tools such as a knife or a screwdriver are prohibited as they could damage the underlying habitat. Foragers are limited to 10 pounds of mussels (shells and all) each trip, which roughly translates to 10 gallons — or two 5-gallon buckets. However, unless you’re planning a big dinner party, you won’t be collecting nearly that much. If you’re unsure of how much to harvest, a good rule of thumb is to grab 1 pound of mussels per person per meal.
So when foraging for mussels in California, what does one need?
First things first: A fishing license
Like most other marine creatures found in the waters of California, mussels require a fishing license to harvest. You can buy a license online, good for one day, a few consecutive days, or for a year. You can also get them in person at select local retailers. Check here for where to buy your license, whether online or in store. You’ll want to keep the license with you, but if you don’t have a hard copy yet, you can keep a PDF on your phone.
Next: Gloves, bucket (or other container) and scale
You’ll want gloves to pull the mussels out, a bucket to throw the mussels into, and perhaps a small scale for weighing, especially if you are trying to get exactly 10 pounds. Portable luggage scales work great if you don’t have a fishing scale.
As for a container, while my partner and I originally started with the classic 5-gallon bucket, we’ve switched to using a dry bag, which we then store in a backpack — seawater and all — for transporting. We found that the dry bag/backpack strategy makes navigating the quarter-mile walk back to the car a more ergonomic trip, especially when half your haul is sloshing water.
Last, you’ll need some seawater, but luckilyy enough that’s not hard to come by. Filling your bucket/container with seawater helps keep the mussels fresh, but also helps clean them once harvested. While sitting in the seawater, the mussels will filter out the sand, grit, bacteria and other unsavory particles lodged inside their shells.
If you don’t want to carry the seawater, you can also do the filtering process at home using water seasoned with whatever store-bought salt you have on hand. I’d recommend letting the mussels sit for at least an hour if you choose this route, especially if you are putting the mussels, shells included, in your meal.
Optional: Waterproof boots
These are useful when the tide is higher, but if you aim for low tide you shouldn’t need them. In fact, they could make your trip more difficult as they are bulky and slippery on the uneven rock surface. I would suggest boots or shoes that have good traction for the slippery rock surfaces.
Last: A wiry brush and pliers
You’ll need these for the cleaning process once the mussels have soaked long enough. The wiry brush is for scrubbing off all the barnacles and other crustaceous types that have adhered to the mussel’s outer shells. And the pliers are for pulling out the beard. I’ve played around with a few different cleaning processes, and this process seems to work the best.
When to harvest
In short: winter, during low tide. Check your tidal charts. I personally like this one. I’d suggest finding a time as close to low tide as possible — you’ll have better access to the mussels and less danger of slipping around on submerged surfaces. But even a partial low tide will do.
As a long-practiced tradition in the Americas, the perils of mussel foraging are widely known, even generating its own lore: Harvest only during months spelled with an “r,” which essentially means September through April. This adage is a good rule of thumb to start with, but it stretches the time frame too far.
While California has no prescribed mussel-fishing season, foragers generally want to shoot for winter. During warm-weather months, which the California Department of Fish and Game identifies as May 1-Oct. 31, the state implements an annual quarantine due to red tide, a phenomenon where algae blooms saturate the water to such a degree that the water turns reddish brown. This algae produces a variety of toxins, which tend to accumulate to dangerous levels in shellfish, causing symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, amnesia, cramps and more in humans who eat the shellfish.
California maintains a biotoxin information hotline, 800-553-4133, which informs callers of what areas are unsafe, as well as how long ago the information was updated. I highly recommend calling every time you go just to be safe.
Where to go? Here are three beaches to check out
In Santa Cruz County, the possibilities are many, but can be hard to discover. I recommend taking some extra time to scope out each spot, because they often require some hiking or light climbing. And as always, never turn your back on the ocean.
Easy: Laguna Creek Beach
This is my favorite spot and by far the easiest to access. Park across the street, right off Highway 1 at Laguna Road. Down a short and relatively flat trail, you’ll hit the beach. Head to the right and around the cliffs. During some parts of the year, you might have to climb down and back up a narrow channel, but once over, you’ll have a huge shelf to explore and a large swath of mussels to choose from.
This spot is a little trickier. As the path down and up is much steeper than Laguna, some light climbing is required. I’d recommend this only if you’re confident in your balancing skills. While it’s a manageable path to traverse, it’s much trickier when carrying tools and potentially a heavy bucket loaded with seawater. In fact, this path is so steep, someone has installed a rope for those climbing up and down.
Like Laguna Creek, Davenport has a large parking area just past the flashing yellow light on the left as you head north from Santa Cruz on Highway 1, and more than enough mussels to spare. If heading straight to the shelf with the mussels, you’ll take the path to the left of the parking lot. If taking the more popular path across the beach, take the path directly under the parking lot and to the right. Alternatively, you can avoid either pathway, if you take the pipe that follows under the highway; however, as it’s usually full of water and corroding metal, or else could be closed off entirely, this option isn’t as preferable.
Difficult: Scott Creek County Beach
Like the other two spots, you won’t have to worry about finding mussels, but I would recommend this location for serious climbers only. The shelf where the mussels live is set up about 7 or 8 feet above the beach and the rock face is slippery from the waves. While in the past some climbing was involved, it appears the storms might have worn away some of the previous footholds.
But if you do check this location out, head down the beach to the left and keep walking until you reach the end. Make sure you go toward the left (or east) if you are facing the ocean. The beach to the right heads into the Greyhound Rock Marine State Conservation Area, where fishing is illegal.
While no official parking lot exists here, there’s lots of parking along the shoulder of the road. However, beware if it’s the weekend, because parking can get competitive.
Where not to go?
The coast along Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County has quite a few marine protected areas, which are off-limits to foragers and most other forms of fishing. This map is an excellent resource for determining areas that are off limits to fishing: California Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). If going north on Highway 1, be aware that Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve extends into Four Mile Beach. Likewise, Scott Creek marks the bottom edge of Greyhound Rock State Marine Conservation Area. Both are protected areas where foraging is prohibited. But everywhere between Four Mile Beach and the southern portion of Scott Creek is available for foraging.
Marine protected areas were officially established through the California Legislature in 1999 with the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act. This legislation was designed to protect the diversity and abundance of species in these areas and the ecosystems that sustain them.