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The waters from which shellfish may be harvested are tested on a regular basis to ensure public safety. This protocol is established by Federal guidelines and is implemented by the Commonwealth. Should the index exceed the threshold for safety then the area will be closed to harvest and will be posted and patrolled. Eating raw shellfish may pose potential health risks for some individuals and consumers should be mindful of the potential health effects. Occasionally, persons may have an allergic reaction to eating shellfish.
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Most of the Town's shellfishing areas are open seven days a week from 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset. The Salt Pond is open on Sundays only. The following tidal creeks are closed at all times:
View these areas on the Shellfish Map (PDF).
The limit for a family permit is one ten quart pail per week (including shells) per domiciled family. The week starts Sunday and ends Saturday. Any number of helpers can accompany the family member in whose name the permit is issued. However, transfer of the permit to another person who is not normally living with the permittee is prohibited.
Generally, quahogs and steamers are available year-round along the west (Bay) shore and various locations in Nauset Marsh. Mussels can be found in the Nauset system. Bay scallops can only be harvested in the months of October through March. Oysters are available in the Salt Pond on Sundays during the months of November through April and in the family area at Hemenway Landing.
All shellfishing requires a permit from the Town in which you will be harvesting. In addition, certain tools will make the harvest more rewarding. For quahogs (hard shell clams) a long-handled tool with curved tines at the base (with or without a basket) will allow the digger to stand and scratch the surface to a depth of six inches which is where the animals are to be found. For Steamer clams (soft shell) the tool is a short-handled hoe that has tines of about 12 inches in length. The digger uses this tool to dig a trench about 10 inches deep and uncover the clams. This tool may also be used for razor clams.
Oysters, scallops, and mussels do not burrow - they live on the surface and may be harvested by hand or using a quahog scratcher. When searching for these species underwater, be mindful of the fact that your activity will likely turn the water muddy - much of the technique uses the sense of feel.
Be sure to protect your feet with boots or old sneakers - broken shell fragments can inflict a serious cut. Hat, insect repellant, and sunscreen are also recommended.
What's in a name? The Native American name for the hard-shell clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) is Quahog (also spelled quahaug, quohog, and others) and the name is unique to the Cape and Islands as well as Rhode Island. Elsewhere along the East Coast, it is referred to as a "clam" Locally, the term "clam" is used to describe the soft shell or steamer clam (Mya arenaria). Just to confuse matters further, the younger, smallest (barely legal size) quahog is designated Littleneck. Somewhat larger specimens of the same animal are called Cherrystone. Both are typically eaten on the half shell.
Permits are issued to taxpayers who are 65 years of age or older for a reduced fee. The limit is the same, and the other regulations apply. Again the person in whose name the permit is issued must be present.
Review the Red Tide (PDF) for more information.
Red tide in New England waters is somewhat of a misnomer as it has no discernable red color. However, the term is used to describe Harmful Algal Blooms which occur worldwide and which can render shellfish which filter these algae to become toxic to warm-blooded animals - such as humans. Although not perfectly understood, we do know that the most common Red Tide occurs locally in Nauset Marsh during the spring months although not every year.
The algae which is the problem suddenly grows very quickly and since shellfish are filter feeders they consume and concentrate a toxic chemical in their tissue. It does not affect the shellfish, but if a warm-blooded animal were to eat the shellfish it has the potential to disrupt the central nervous system functions of heartbeat and breathing. This phenomenon has evidently been happening for many years and was understood by the Native Americans so there is no clear link to pollution or other environmental degradation.
Testing of the shellfish is done on a weekly basis to ensure the safety of harvesters, and the protocol for reopening an area affected by Red Tide is very conservative. No known instances of Red Tide poisoning have occurred in Eastham although closures have been frequent in the past decade.