What is a shell?

Shells found lying on the beach are what remains of the protective covering of soft-bodied animals that do not have bones. A shell is actually an external skeleton that protects the soft-bodied animal within from predators and strong waves. Like human skeletons, shells are made of calcium. Battered by the waves, the shell eventually breaks up into tiny pieces that mingle with the beach sand. Shells are more than houses, they are vehicles shaped for burying, crawling, leaping, and even swimming! Shells can be traps, their colours can act as signals and they can even act as greenhouses culturing plant cells that feed the shellfish. Shells have been the simple objects of play, prized treasures, used as money and have inspired art masterpieces, literature and architecture.

Shells are classified according to the body of the animal and the number and structure of the shells. Shells protect soft-bodied molluscs, bivalves having two shells and univalves a single shell. Chitons have eight flexible, overlapping shells. Sand dollars are echinoderms, closely related to the spiny sea stars and sea urchins, and their shell is called a “test.”

"When the tide is out, the table is set."

This First Nations saying refers to the teeming stores of shellfish, many of them edible, that are revealed when the tide recedes: oysters clinging to the rocks; mussels massed together in large colonies; clams buried in the wet sand; scallops with their rippled shells; and the iridescent abalone. There are hundreds of different kinds of shells in the Pacific Northwest. This guide introduces you to a few of the most common species that you will find as you walk the beach and prowl the shoreline.

A licence is required to harvest live shellfish, and local fisheries agencies and websites have information on open and closed areas, harvest seasons, bag limits and other restrictions.

In this guide popular edible shellfish are marked with this symbol: