Limpets: an Alternative to PSP-Prone Mollusks

By , August 9, 2014

As mentioned in a recent post (“Don’t Touch the Water!”) Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, or PSP, hangs like the sword of Damocles over beach foragers (see The Tide is Out, the Table is Set: Beach Foraging).

This deadly alga can accumulate in and contaminate some of the most delectable mollusks: clams, cockles, and mussels. Cautious people harvest only from beaches that have been tested and certified as safe. In all of Alaska, with more miles of coastline than the rest of the United States combined, we have only two certified beaches! All others are supposed to be unsafe. Alaska has a thriving private clam and oyster farming industry, so certification of more public beaches seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, people traditionally harvest clams and mussels every year all over Southeast Alaska with no ill effects. Aly and I used to eat local mussels at particular, severely-restricted times of the year, but no longer do so. Algae blooms are on the rise in the world’s oceans, increasing the likelihood of PSP contamination; living remotely, the likelihood of getting what little medical aid might help against PSP is nil. Better to seek alternatives.

Our alternative is the limpet. Limpets, also known as China hats for their evocative shape, feed on algae, but as members of the snail family they scrape rather than filter, as mollusks do. This apparently keeps PSP toxins from accumulating in their flesh.

Conveniently, a limpet popped from its shell bears a striking similarity to a steamer clam. Better yet, some varieties are closely related to abalone, sharing a superior flavor. Clinging to the rocks at higher mid tides in considerable numbers, it doesn’t take long to gather enough limpets to feed a family, either as a garlicy-buttery main dish (if you’ve ever prepared escargot, think along those lines) or in place of clams in chowders and pasta dishes. All the flavor, texture, even color of the clam without fear of PSP!

We keep hearing that a simple, fast, inexpensive home test for PSP is on the horizon. One day we may be able to test our beaches ourselves, and make better-informed decisions on the safety of our clams and mussels. Until then, thank goodness for limpets!

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