Shellfish Facts and FAQ

Local ocean waters host a variety of edible shellfish including bay scallops, clams, oysters, and steamers.

Cape Cod Oyster

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans offer many species of shellfish that can be classified as delicacies, including bay scallops, clams, oysters, and steamers. Shellfish have been eaten for centuries and we’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions.

Bay Scallops

What do bay scallops taste like?

Generally speaking, scallops have a milder and sweeter taste in comparison to other members of the shellfish family. They’re soft, tender, and are considered a delicacy. Sea scallops are larger in size and are not as sweet as a bay scallop.

Where do bay scallops live?

Bay scallops are a bivalve shellfish, found from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Cape Cod, Mass, particularly in subtidal zones, eelgrass beds, sandy and muddy bottoms, and in bays and harbors.

What do bay scallops look like?

A sea scallop shell is round, with colors ranging from gray to yellow, or reddish-brown. Unlike other shellfish, bay scallops don’t have a foot for digging and water intake.

How many eyes do bay scallops have?

They have 30 to 40 eyes, allowing them to see movements or shadows to detect sea stars and other predators searching for food.

What do bay scallops eat?

Bay scallops are a filter feeder; they eat small organisms floating through the water like plankton, krill, and algae.


Oyster Farm
Photo Credit: Mass. Dept. of Agriculture Resources

What do oysters taste like?

The taste of an oyster is affected by the environment it was harvested varying from salty, mild, earthy, and creamy.

Where do oysters come from?

The majority of edible oysters are grown and harvested in the tidal zone of an aquaculture farm.

Harvesting Oysters
Andy Nabreski holds a rake full of Cape Cod oysters.

Where do oysters live?

Most eastern oysters are grown commercially along the Atlantic coast from Rhode island to Virginia. They’re also cultivated in Louisiana and Washington state in the Pacific northwest.

Do oysters produce pearls?

The eastern oyster is primarily a food source, but from time to time they produce pearls. The “pearl oyster” is the shellfish people think of when it comes to necklaces, rings, and jewelry.

What do oysters eat?

Oysters relax their valve muscle, causing their shell to open, allowing them to take in and filter floating plankton.

What do oysters look like?

The outside shell of an oyster is grayish-white in color, white on the inside, and the edible muscle is an off-white or grayish brown.

Clams (Quahogs)

Fire Island Clams
Photo Credit: National Park Service

What do clams taste like?

The flavor of a clam varies from salty to buttery and sweet depending on the water quality and environment it was harvested from.

Where do clams live?

Roughly half of a clam’s life is spent buried in the mud and sand of a riverbed or ocean floor. They live in freshwater, brackish, and marine environments from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to South Carolina.

What do clams eat?

All clams are filter feeders, eating plankton and other small floating organisms in freshwater and marine environments.

How long do clams live?

Clams are a slow-growing bivalve shellfish, living 12 to 20 years on average. However, European freshwater clams can live up to 116 years.

What are the different types of clams?

  • Cherrystone clams are named after Cherrystone Creek in Virginia. When quahogs grow to this size, the meat gets tougher. Cherrystones are best when chopped and used for stuffies or chowder – 3 to 4 per lb. and a 2-inch hinge.
  • Chowder clams are the big, old, tough ones, but they pack the clammiest flavor. Dice them up after cooking,  and use them for dishes like clam cakes, fritters, dips, and pasta sauces. Freezing helps tenderize the meat – 1 to 2 per lb., 2.5 -inch hinge.
  • Littleneck clams are the baby quahogs. Named after Little Neck Bay on Long Island, they’re the sweetest and most tender. They’re best eaten raw, steamed, and served with melted butter, or served whole over pasta – 10 to 13 per lb and a 1-inch hinge.
  • Middle neck clams are the next size up after little necks. They can be used in the same manner as littlenecks –  7 to 9 per lb., 1 1/4-inch hinge.
  • Top neck clams are preferred for recipes where the clams are served as an appetizer in the shell. When they get to this size, I like to split the meat in half when shucking – 5 to 7 per lb., 1 1/2-inch hinge.

Steamers (Soft-Shelled Clams)

Soft shelled clams steamers
A wire basket full of soft shelled clams.

What’s the difference between a softshell and hard-shelled clam?

Soft-shelled clams are thin and brittle, preferring to bury themselves more deeply in comparison to hard-shelled clams, which stay closer to the surface of the seafloor.

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