Washington’s public tidelands provide an array of shellfish to gather including cockle and eastern softshell clams
In this third of a four-part weekly series, we’ll dive into a lesser-known but equally deserving bivalve known as cockle and eastern softshell clams that can be found along Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches
Here in Washington, we are lucky to live somewhere where we can forage delicious, healthy seafood from publicly owned tidelands.
With over 350 open areas and about 275 low tides per year, there are endless opportunities to harvest on public lands. Bivalve shellfish are a nutritious local protein.
Puget Sound tidelands and coastal beaches host many varieties of clams. Razor clams are only found on the outer coast because they require a high wave energy sandy beach to survive, and the recreational season usually occurs in fall through spring of year. In Puget Sound and Hood Canal, harvesting seasons vary by beach and there is a plethora of delicious species to discover.
In this third of a four-part weekly series, we focus on how to harvest, store, and prepare cockles and eastern softshell clams.
To ensure shellfish like cockles and eastern softshell clams remain stable, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) shellfish managers along with tribal co-managers and community-science volunteers conduct extensive annual biomass surveys on beaches. These surveys help to inform sustainable recreational and tribal commercial shellfish quotas and recreational seasons on public beaches.
The cockle (Clinocardium nuttallii) has a very short siphon and a very powerful digging foot. This foot can be powerful enough to propel them away from starfish or other perceived predators, underwater or on the beach surface. Cockles usually are found on the surface or barely buried at surface level throughout the mid to low intertidal zones. Shells can reach a maximum size of 5 inches. Shells are highly ridged and appear to form a heart when viewed from the side.
Cockles can sometimes be found in eelgrass but digging in eelgrass is not a best harvest practice.
To help protect Puget Sound habitat, only finger pick if clams are in eelgrass beds. Most people eat the large digging foot and mantle meat in chowders or ground up for fritters. Cockles make exceptionally good chowder.
Cockles can be quite large so care should be taken not to exceed the limit of up to 40 clams, not to exceed 10 pounds in the shell. With larger cockles, 10 pounds may be achieved with 18–22 clams.
How to process cockles: Cockles are usually cracked open live in the shell and cleaned with running water. This clam will not purge itself of sand and grit, so it is not suitable for steaming. Carry clams’ home on ice and clean as soon as possible. Cockles do not store well.
Eastern softshell clams
Eastern softshell (Mya arenaria) are often mistaken for small horse clams. Shells are a soft, chalky white with rough irregular surface. Some brown shellacking may be present on parts of the shell. The shell is rounded at the foot end and pointed at the siphon end. Shells can grow up to 6 inches. The siphon has no leathery flap, unlike the horse clams. Eastern softshell clams are often found in more brackish areas or near small stream outflows. If you are not intending to harvest eastern softshell clams, move away from any obvious freshwater inputs to the beach.
Eastern softshell clams are part of the 40 clams limit (not to exceed 10 pounds in the shell). Eastern softshell clams are not thought to be able to rebury after being removed from the beach. Follow instructions for replanting horse clams.
How to process eastern softshell clams: These are usually incidental take and are mixed in with other steamer clams when smaller in size. Large clams may be treated like horse clams for processing or cooking. Eastern softshell clams have a leathery membrane on their siphons like horse clam siphons. For harvesters who are targeting this species, steam in the shell, and serve with a bowl of warm water to rinse the meat free of sand and grit. To eat, strip the leathery bit off the siphon and discard it, swoosh in warm water, then dip in melted butter and devour.
Transporting and storing cockles and eastern softshell clams: Store clams in a cooler with ice until you reach the location where you will clean or cook the clams. It is very important to keep clams cool until you cook them. Be careful clams do not sit in melted ice water while transporting. I prefer to use freezer blocks over freshwater ice cubes, so water melt is not an issue. If using fresh ice, keep clams separated from bag with a dish towel or layer of cardboard.
Deeper dwelling clams are used to being buried in the beach where the substrate would exert pressure against the shell. Wrapping them tightly in damp dish towels and binding with rubber bands will mimic this pressure. Clams will gape slightly while stored but should respond by moving their siphons or closing their shells when handled.
(Note: Do not store cockles in water in the refrigerator as they will suffocate from lack of oxygen and die. As a rule, except for during purging, do not store any clams in water for any length of time.)
NEW! Cornucopia of shellfish recipes
We are lucky to live in Washington where you’re able to forage delicious, healthy seafood from publicly owned tidelands.
We’ve compiled a very extensive list of delightful recipes to provide tips and advice on how to cook local shellfish. Be sure to visit the WDFW’s shellfish recipe page for all the details. In the coming months we plan to expand our recipe page to include not just seafood but many other dishes that’ll be sure to wow your guest at the dining table!
If you go
Be sure to read the first part of our shellfish gathering series where we go over details and helpful information on licenses; regulations; current seasons for various shellfish; water quality and closures; a shellfish safety map; tide charts; gear list; prepping shellfish to eat; and a wide-range of links to a list of resources.
You can also click here on the WDFW Medium to find a wealth of information on how to harvest Manila, native littlenecks, butter, and horse clams in parts one and two of the series.
(The shellfish gathering information in this series was written and compiled by Camille Speck, the WDFW Puget Sound Intertidal Bivalve Manager)