Beach Foraging In The PNW (From Sand Fleas To Seaweed)

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Despite growing up right next to the beach in Custer, Washington my wife could just never get on board with seafood.

And, if she wasn’t about to eat the delicious local salmon and crab you can bet that when my daughters and I started getting into foraging she wasn’t about to start slurping down seaweed and eating sand fleas.

I can’t say that she was entirely wrong.

The coasts of the Pacific Northwest are incredible food sources (and have been for native people for thousands of years) but no one can say that everything edible is delicious.

However, if you’re interested in health, becoming a bit more connected with nature, or just saving some money then here are some of the better (or at least more interesting) things we’ve found that are both edible and commonly available.

So let’s head to the beach and get foraging!

A Quick Note…

Before I begin, I should point out that you will likely need a state permit for most of the creatures listed here. It’s best to check the state’s website to see permit requirements, how many you can take per day, and which locations are legal.

11 Edible Beach Finds Foraged In Washington & Oregon

1. Sand Fleas

The reason that sand fleas are first on this list is that I really want to clear up some myths and misconceptions about sand fleas in Oregon and Washington.

What most people call sand fleas when they talk about beach foraging are actually mole crabs (which are next on this list). While that’s a totally accepted alternate name, sand fleas are actually the hopping little shrimp-like creatures that are feasting on the rotting seaweed and other sea detritus that gets deposited on the beach.

These little amphipods, also known as beach hoppers, are technically edible but are so small I’m not sure how I’d go about it.

However, if by “sand fleas” you mean the larger more rounded prehistoric-looking creatures found down by the surf, let’s move on to mole crabs.

2. Mole Crabs

edible sand flea in hand

The first time I found a mole crab in Oregon I was totally confused. Someone told me it was a sand flea but it was bigger than any other sand flea I had ever seen. It turns out…they weren’t totally wrong.

Mole Crabs are commonly called sand fleas but the variety that we find in Oregon and Washington are not simply overgrown versions of the hopping little sand fleas that feast on seaweed.

The variety of sand crab found in Oregon (Emerita analoga) is not actually self-sustaining but makes its way up from California. While they rarely make it all the way up to Washington, the Twin Harbors Peninsula does have an established population

These little crabs are filter feeders and (like sand fleas) don’t have claws so you don’t have anything to be scared of.

They can be cooked the same way that sand fleas can, just be sure to thoroughly cook them as they are known for having parasites.

Sand fleas are not only edible but their soft white meat easily takes on flavor (the same way crab meat does) which makes them quite delicious.

These little guys can be found in the sand when the waves retreat, especially if you get low and keep an eye out for their little antennae which they stick up to feed.

3. Nereocystis

Nereocystis found foraging

Commonly called “bull kelp” or “ribbon kelp,” nereocystis is very common throughout the entire Pacific Northwest and can be found from Alaska to California.

The name comes from the Greek for “mermaid’s bladder,” which makes it sound less appetizing to me but it’s pretty good. The bulbs, stems, and leaves are all edible, with pickled bulbs and stems being the most common uses. They can also be used to flavor soup.

When you’re out foraging, you’ll want to look for pieces that are smooth to the touch, while avoiding white spots or damaged edges. These are indicators that the kelp is too old to eat. You’ll want to process them within a day or two, as they go bad quickly.

You’ll want to peel the stock if you choose to take that as well but you can use the same utensil as you normally would for carrots or potatoes.

4. Clams

Digging Clams at Birch Bay

There are plenty of clams and other shellfish available on the beach as well. Clamming can be done rather easily, with only a clam shovel and a bucket.

The razor clam is one of the most popular, as it is usually the type used in clam chowder. However, the Pacific Northwest has other varieties, including the massive Geoduck, which can weigh several pounds!

It is important to point out, however, that shellfish build up levels of a neurotoxin called paralytic shellfish toxin (PST), which can be deadly for humans.

You’ll want to check the website of the state you’re in to see if the beach has been tested recently. The toxin cannot be destroyed by heating or freezing so harvesting from safe areas is the best way to avoid eating contaminated shellfish.

5. Green and Purple Shore Crabs

Purple Shore Crab from Tillamook Bay

When most people think of eating crab, they picture a king crab or a Dungeness. However, these mostly live in the deep ocean and are not likely to be found near the beach, although it is possible.

The purple and green shore crabs, however, are all over the place! They’re a bit smaller at just a few inches long for both species. These are very different than the European green crab which is known for being an awful invader and a destructive species.

As with all saltwater crabs, you can eat them raw if you’re desperate for a meal or you can take them home and cook them as you would a normal crab.

6. Purple Laver

Doesn’t it make you hungry?

Purple laver is another type of edible seaweed that is commonly found on beaches throughout the Pacific Northwest.

It is dense in many vitamins and minerals, particularly Vitamin B12. A 2001 Japanese study revealed that lab mice with low B12 levels who were fed dried purple laver caused an increase back to normal levels.

There are a few side effects associated with consuming too much purple laver, however, including the presence of Vitamin K, an anticoagulant that can interfere with blood thinners. If you’re on warfarin or a similar medication, you should check with your doctor.

7. Barnacles

Gooseneck Barnacles on the Oregon Coast

As a child, I stepped on a barnacle one time while walking barefoot on a beach and I’ve never forgiven the entire species for that event. That is part of the reason why I enjoy eating them so much.

There are two types of barnacles that are safe and commonly eaten by humans, the gooseneck and the acorn. Both are found in the Pacific Northwest, although I understand they may be easier to find in Oregon.

The gooseneck variety is considered one of the most popular and expensive seafood delicacies in the world.

Eating these barnacles has proven controversial in recent days, however, as there is a growing movement of people who believe the species’ population numbers are unsustainable with current harvest levels.

8. Sea Lettuce

Unlike the names of some of the other items on this list, sea lettuce is pretty easy to understand. It’s found in saltwater (like most seas have) and it looks like lettuce. It’s simple; it tells the whole story.

It can be eaten either raw or cooked, although I wouldn’t recommend eating the stuff you find on the beach without at least rinsing it off, since it is found in saltwater.

9. Mussels

Cooking Mussels on the beach in Washington

Mussels are another common shellfish found on the beach that can be eaten. They also have high levels of vitamins and minerals, like some of the others that we’ve discussed.

Like other shellfish, of course, it’s important to be aware of paralytic shellfish poisoning. Mussels can also contain other toxic elements, which is why they are traditionally boiled in order to remove everything that possibly can be.

After eating the mussel (by which I, of course, mean the meat inside), you can keep the shells as decorations, art projects, jewelry, or many other things. You can also simply throw them away.

10. The California Sea Cucumber

Despite its name, the California Sea Cucumber is not found only in California. It can be found from the Gulf of Alaska all the way down to Mexico. There are other sea cucumbers throughout the Pacific Northwest but this is the largest species.

Despite the name, they are not actually vegetables. They’re echinoderms, like sea urchins or starfish.

Eating them is known to thin the blood, however, so if you’re already on medication to do that, you should exercise caution and ask your doctor first.

11. The Gumboot Chiton

Massive Gumboot Chiton in a Tidepool

Gumboot chitons, a type of mollusk, are the largest members of the chiton family, averaging about 13 inches. Most others are between two and three inches.

They were often eaten by the early Native Americans, whose subsistence lifestyle involved hunting, fishing, and gathering other edibles, including most (if not all) of the items on this list.

I’ve never personally eaten one, but I’m told the taste is…not great. It’s very tough and rubbery but still very edible.

12. Purple Sea Urchins

Foraging for urchins at the Seattle Aquarium…

The final member of our list is the sea urchin, an echinoderm that looks like a pin cushion. Around here, you’ll see the purple variety most commonly, although you may find others.

They have a very interesting taste that has been described in a number of different ways, including buttery, salty, umami, and others. In order to truly find out what it tastes like, you’ll just have to try one sometime!

They do sting, although it’s more unpleasant than dangerous, so you’ll want to wear gloves and handle them carefully while you’re harvesting.

Frequently Asked Questions?

Are All Types of Seaweed Edible?

While pretty much every type of seaweed is edible (meaning not poisonous…) not all of it is equally nutritious or palatable, and some may even cause stomach upset.

For example, brown seaweeds like bull kelp and giant kelp contain carbohydrates that our bodies simply can’t break down and digest.

However, even those that don’t have much value as food can serve as seasoning agents, food wrapping materials, and a source of fiber and vitamins.

Be aware, however, that foraging for seaweed is not without risks. it’s important to be aware of certain risks. Notably, the blue-green algae commonly found in freshwater lakes and streams are toxic and should be avoided. Additionally, seaweeds have a tendency to absorb and concentrate metals like lead, cadmium, and copper, which can be harmful.

In general, you’ll be safe if you avoid seaweeds harvested near densely populated areas, industrial zones, or those found washed up or rotting on the shorelines (as if that would be your choice anyway…) as these may contain higher levels of contaminants.

Are Starfish Edible?

Yes! Most starfish (or sea stars, as they’re starting to be known since they’re not actually fish) are perfectly safe for human consumption. They don’t have brains or blood which means they’re mostly meat.

Do People Eat Octopus?

Yes, octopus is a common delicacy, and the Giant Pacific Octopus, found all throughout the Pacific Northwest, is no exception.

Restaurants mainly serve the tentacles but there are many other edible portions. Fried octopus eyes, for example, are considered particularly good.

They can be a bit hard to catch on or near the shore, however, which is why I didn’t include them on this list.

Are The PNW’s Jellyfish Edible?

While they’re not considered common fare, several species of jellyfish found in the PNW are indeed edible.

Species like the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and the lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) are among those that can be eaten.

However, this isn’t easy food for just anyone. You’ll want to have a thorough understanding of the specific species and proper preparation methods, as some jellyfish can be harmful if not prepared correctly.

Also, the texture and taste of jellyfish (usually described as slightly chewy and quite bland) is probably not one that many people are interested in.

Should I Be Worried About Pollution?

It can be, yes. This is why I recommend foraging on less popular beaches, farther away from commercial activities. Some of these hazards can be boiled out but others, like paralytic shellfish toxin, cannot be.

Summary and Conclusion

At the end of the day, I don’t think that the seafood that the PNW is famous for is found by raking your local beach.

However, coastal foraging is a great hobby if you’re looking for a natural way to get closer to nature and incorporate yourself into the local food web!

Have fun out there and be safe!

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