Recreational Shellfish Harvest

Overview

The expanse of marshlands, tidal creeks and sound systems that make up the Georgia coastline produce an abundance of seafood for residents and tourists alike. Oysters (Crassostrea virginica)  and clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) are very abundant in many areas and provide excellent table fare when managed and handled properly. Molluscan shellfish are filter feeders and therefore have the potential to accumulate high levels of biological and chemical contaminants that may be present in the water surrounding their habitat. Like many other state shellfish programs, Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division routinely monitors water quality conditions along the coast to ensure that waters meet classifications for harvest as prescribed in the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP). Guidelines of the NSSP ensure that waters are routinely tested and classified to prohibit the taking of shellfish for human food purposes from any areas not classified as “approved” and to deal with emergency closures related to extreme weather events.

In Georgia, recreational shellfish harvest is only permissible in designated public harvest areas. Maps may be downloaded by clicking on the link below. 

Shellfish Approved Harvest Areas

A Georgia Fishing License is required to harvest shellfish and shellfish may only be taken using handheld implements. Shellfish may only be harvested between the hours of thirty minutes before official sunrise and thirty minutes after official sunset. It is unlawful to sell any shellfish that was harvested for recreational purposes.

Shellfish Limits

Oysters must measure no less than three inches from hinge to mouth, unless the smaller oyster cannot be removed from a legal-sized oyster without destroying it. For clams, the maximum depth from one shell half to the other must be at least three-fourths' inch thick.

Recreational quantity limits are up to two bushels of oysters and one bushel of clams per person per day, with a maximum limit of six bushels of oysters and one bushel of clams per boat per day.

Definition of Shellfish

Shellfish are clams, oysters, mussels, or other bivalve mollusks that inhabit the estuaries, marshes and beaches of coastal Georgia.

Conchs, Whelks, Periwinkles and Tulips are not bivalve mollusks and are not covered under shellfish regulations.

 

A Note About Mussels

The Atlantic ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) are common to Georgia marshes in large numbers, usually entangled in the root system of Spartina. The flavor is stronger and more salty than the popular Blue mussel, but the ease of collection tempts the shellfish harvester with a bountiful harvest. Ribbed mussels conserve water loss at low tide by tightly closing their shell; however, this retains the waste products from earlier meals and increases the risk of illness for the consumer. Most bivalves feed on larger phytoplankton but the ribbed mussel is able to forage on smaller organisms such as cyanobacteria or other algae that produces toxins that may cause diseases such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. For this reason, CRD strongly recommends against the consumption of local mussels.

 

The Asian green mussel

(Perna viridis) is an invasive species and are usually found in high densities attached to a solid object by strong byssal threads. The feeding habits of these mussels are similar to Atlantic mussel (above) and CRD strongly recommends consumption of these mussels be avoided.

Health Concerns

Most shellfish harvested in Georgia waters are harvested from areas approved by the State for the cultivation and harvest of shellfish by licensed dealers and are safe for human consumption.  However, raw or undercooked shellfish should not be consumed by individuals with certain health risks.
Anyone with cancer, liver disease, diabetes, HIV, hepatitis, alcoholism, iron overload disease (Hemochromatosis), or any illness or medical treatment which compromises or weakens the immune system, should avoid the consumption of raw or undercooked shellfish or avoid shellfish consumption entirely. We recommend that anyone with health concerns consult their medical provider about the risks involved before consuming shellfish from any source. 
All consumers should be aware the of the risk of harmful and potentially fatal illnesses caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium found in raw oysters and other shellfish which is particularly prevalent in warm waters and warm weather months.  Vibrio infections are rare, but can occur in even healthy individuals in oysters harvested from waters considered safe for shellfish harvesting.
Most shellfish illnesses involve Vibrio vulnificus, but other Vibrio’s, Hepatitis A, Shigella, Norwalk viruses, and other pathogenic organisms and chemical toxins have been transmitted through shellfish consumption or handling. 
For more information on Vibrio infections, visit the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference web site.

Recommended Safe Cooking Practices

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference recommend the following cooking tips for:

Live Oysters and Clams in the Shell

Use small pots so shellfish in the middle receive adequate cooking
Boil for 3 to 5 minutes after the shells open or
Steam for 4 to 9 minutes in a pre-steaming pot

Shucked Oysters and Clams

Boil or simmer for 3 minutes or until the edges curl,
Fry in preheated 375°F oil for at least 3 minutes,
Broil 3 inches from heat for 3 minutes, or
Bake in a pre-heated 450°F oven for 10 minutes

Other Edible Shellfish

Oysters and hard clams are not the only edible shellfish native to Georgia waters.  Other edible mollusks are unlikely to be found in approved harvest areas so we offer this information for the curious forager.
Both the Sunray (Macrocallista nimbosa) and the Cross-barred venus (Chione elevate) are commonly found in sand or mud/sand bottoms near inlets or offshore just below the low tide mark to