Animals -> Marine Invertebrates -> Bivalves -> Mussels


Mussels General

Mussels General

Mussels were gathered and used by many coastal Indigenous Peoples including the Makah, Coast Salish, Squamish, Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw), Bella Coola (Nuxalk), Haida, Haihais, Bella Bella (Hieltsuk), Oowekeeno (Hieltsuk), Tlingit, Aleut, Inuit (of Canada and Greenland), Beothuk of Newfoundland, Micmac (Mi'kmaq) and Iroquois [1-28]. Mussels were often used as an emergency food insuring against famine [9, 11, 12, 17, 29]. Evidence of historical use of mussels can be found in many shell middens, including an old Tsimshian village [30].

Nuxalk called mussels smiks, the Tlingit word was ya?k, the people of Port Simpson (Tsimshian) called them gyels, and Algonquin commonly called most bivalves e’sis [1, 31-33]. Large mussels were collected and consumed by Central and Northern Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) as well as Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) [34, 35]. Northern and Central Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) called large mussels lūtcim and small mussels qōtsuma [35].


Although mussels were available throughout the year, many cultures preferred to gather them in winter when the risk of shellfish poisoning was minimal [3, 12, 16, 18, 31, 36-39]. Tlingit used several methods to escape such poisoning: reading the tide for dinoflagellates, avoiding mussels in the intertidal zone that were subject to toxin, and avoiding susceptible mussel beds. The importance of this knowledge is illustrated by the story of a group of 135 Koniag men dying on a hunting trip on the Tlingit coastline after consuming mussels [36]. Nootka avoided collecting mussels when the herring spawned [3]. The Central and Northern Nootka collected mussels particularly in winter when the weather was not good for fishing or when dried fish stores were low. The Tlingit collected them in large quantities in March [35, 40].

Mussels were found along most coastlines; however the concentration varied depending on location; cultures tended to revisit productive areas [41]. Some mussels also grew on stray branches that found themselves in the water, and one could remove sheets of mussels found this way [21]. The Squamish went to Burrard Inlet while the Bella Coola went to the outer sea channels to gather mussels [42]. In winter, mussels were available where the coast was free of ice especially in the Inoucdjouac region of Quebec. Holes in the ice could be made from which Inuit gathered mussels when the tide was out. In spring they could also be collected at Wakeham and Saglouc [43].

At low tide in winter, women gathered mussels using a prying stick (often made of yew) to detach them from rocks [6, 13, 16, 18, 29, 31, 36, 42, 44, 45]. The people of Port Simpson also used wedges, and scrapers made of bone or rock to pry mussels off boulders [31]. The Southern Okanagan made holes in the ice from which they would extract mussels with a two pronged stick [38]. Mussels were collected and carried back to camp in cedar baskets [6]. The Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) collected small mussels by diving in deep waters [46].

Although not highly regarded, mussels were an important element of the diet of some cultures. Mussels were an important shellfish food source for Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) of Vancouver Island when other foods were in short supply and strong seas prevented fishing and hunting [47]. Like other beach foods, mussels were seen by the Kwakiutl as food for the poor, even though they were an important source of nutrition when food reserves were low [48]. Tsimshian believed that in the past mussels were only consumed by slaves [36]. Even though the Micmac collected them they were not particularly liked [20].


Mussels were consumed raw, boiled, steamed, roasted or dried [3, 49]. Some northwest coast cultures only ate them fresh and did not preserve them [50]. Coast Salish gathered and ate mussels regularly, never storing them [51, 52]. Nootka steamed them on a large bed of stones heated by a dying fire and covered with leaves. The mussels were placed on the leaves and covered with additional leaves, water and mats [11, 12]. During times of urgency such as starvation, Southern Okanagan shucked and boiled mussels for immediate use; however, during times of plenty they preferred the lengthier process of pit steaming them [38]. The Kwakiutl and Tlingit gathered mussels in large quantities and dried them for winter [40, 45, 53]. The Kwakiutl hung dried mussels from the beams in their huts, while the Tlingit boxed and stored them in their roofs [40, 53]. Nunivak Yupik are reported to have consumed mussels raw [54]. The Iroquois reportedly boiled mussels for many hours to make them soft [3, 22].

The Tlingit believed that mussels eaten in combination with certain roots and vegetables could make someone very sick. The remedy proposed was to make an incision on the scalp and apply a skunk cabbage poultice as well as add mother’s milk in order to draw out the toxins [39].

Uses other than food

Dried mussels were a valuable commodity for the Tlingit: they traded them with inland cultures for hides [40]. Mussel shells were widely used as tools to make knives, axes and, to a smaller extent, decorations [15, 18]. The Makah, Coast Salish and Kyuquot used large shells to make blades for knives, and often fish knives used by women [8, 18, 55-57]. The Coast Salish ceremony for the first salmon run required a mussel blade to slice the first fish lengthwise [56]. Because Kyoquot believed that steel knives offended the salmon, women used mussel knives to slice them [57]. Nootka used mussel shells as scrapers to remove animal flesh and hair from hides; they also made whale harpoon blades [12].

Blue Mussel

Blue mussels are reported to have been eaten by cultures along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts [3]. Kyuquot, preferred clams, but sometimes ate blue mussels [57]. Tlingit middens on the northwest coast suggest that blue mussels were consumed by them [36, 58]. Alaskan cultures are reported to have consumed blue mussels [59, 60] and the Copper River Flats provided a large supply of blue mussels, ensuring that cultures including the Chugach had access to a reliable form of sustenance when hunting failed to bring a good yield [61]. The Wampanoag ate blue mussels occasionally, typically using them for bait rather than food [62]. Even though evidence has been found that Micmac (Mi'kmaq) ate blue mussels, a superstition existed in Richibucto that deterred them from eating them [63]. Blue mussels were a traditional food for Inuit of Belcher and Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton) Islands [64, 65].

The Nuxalk harvested blue mussels throughout the year, and they were known as smiks  [66, 67]. The Tlingit collected them between August and March [39, 66]. The Tl’uhus primarily ate blue mussels in May [21]. Blue mussels were not collected when herring spawned [68]. Micmac of Newfoundland consumed them May to September [69].

Blue mussels were found in secluded, calm waters and were often found growing densely on floating pieces of wood or branches, which could be pulled out and roasted immediately without detaching them [3, 68]. The Kyuquot and Manhousat prepared them in similar ways to clams although they did not dry as well [57, 68]. Blue mussels were cooked and never eaten raw [60, 68]. The Nuxalk and Tl’uhus ate fresh mussels, pit steamed or stone boiled, and did not preserve them [21, 66]. In more recent times, mussels were often boiled and steamed in pots.

Evidence of tools made from blue mussel shells was found at Daxatkanada, a Tlingit archeological site [58]. The Tl’uhus believed that placing the body of a blue mussel on the navel of a newborn baby would help the healing process of the umbilical cord [21].

Other Mussels

California mussels are one of the largest mussel species collected by Indigenous Peoples. They typically grow eight inches long but can grow up to twelve inches [3, 57]. They were often harvested by the Manhousat, Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) and Kyuquot [3, 57, 68]. California mussels were a vital source of nutrition for the Manhousat who collected them frequently throughout the year, except when herring spawned and in summer when the risk of shellfish poisoning was high. The Manhousat harvested them from places that were safe such as Hilhhuu7a, which was located halfway between two main villages. Other well known places were near Hotsprings Cove, Flores Island and God’s Pocket [68]. A prying stick was used to remove them from large rocks [3, 68]. The shell was sharpened to makes blades for tools, and was used to make the classic ulu knife [3, 58, 68]. They were always cooked with water, a method called niis, or with heat, a method called maasmaas, but never dried [68].

Mussels known as foolish mussels or bay mussels are reported to have been collected by the Central and Southern Coast Salish, Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) of Vancouver Island, Tlingit and Southeastern Alaskan cultures [36, 47, 70-72]. Foolish mussels were normally gathered by Coast Salish women and formed an important component in their diet [71, 72].

Northern horsemussels are reported to have been collected and eaten by the Micmac (Mi'kmaq) of Richibucto on the east coast and Tlingit on the west coast. Tlingit middens on the northwest coast indicate that horsemussels were eaten frequently and in great numbers [36, 63].

The Wampanoag are reported to have eaten ribbed mussels occasionally, but they used them more for bait [62].


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Mussels General

Mussels General

Mussels have a dominant role in rocky shore intertidal and subtidal marine communities from mild tropical to subarctic regions. In North America, the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) occurs only along the Atlantic coast, while other mussel species occur along the Pacific or along both coast. Mussels are called moules in French.

In mussels, unlike in oysters and scallops, the two valves are the same shape, roughly triangular, and two adductor muscles, one smaller than the other, are attached at each end of each valve. On the exterior of the shell, there can be some shallow concentric rings running parallel to the hinge, but unlike in clams, they cannot be used reliably to estimate age. The interior of the shell is white with a broad border of purple or dark blue. The colour, thickness, and size of the shell vary among species, but also among locations. For instance, in the exposed interitdal zone, the blue mussel has a heavy blue-black shell and measures 2-3 cm, while in the more optimal sublittoral zone, it has a thin brownish shell and measures 10-13 cm [1].

Mussels do not burrow in the soft bottom substrate using their foot as an anchor, like in clams and cockles, but rather secrete attachment threads from the base of their foot to secure themselves, with the hinge facing downwards, onto harder substrates or among them. Mussels, like oysters and scallops, can settle on a variety of substrates that are firm enough for good anchorage, like stone, pebble, shell, or wood, but will not settle on muddy bottoms. Sea snails (Nucella spp) are the main mussel predator, but sea star, crabs, shorebirds, seaducks, and some marine mammals, like sea otters, seals, and walruses, also feed on mussels. Mussels, like other bivalve mollusks, are filter-feeders, and can accumulate bacterial or viral agents, pollutants, or biotoxin produced by their food (dinoflagelates and diatoms) that can be harmful to human [1].

Blue Mussel

The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) occurs along the North American Atlantic coast from Maritime Provinces to North Carolina and along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. Mussels are a type of bivalve mollusks, related to cockles, clams, oysters, and scallops. The blue mussel is most closely related to other North American mussels in the same genus, like the California mussel (M. californianus) and the foolish mussel (M. trossulus). In blue mussels, shells are smooth with shallow concentric rings and coloured from purplish blue to almost black. The inside of the shell is pearly and bluish white with a darker margin. Some blue mussel populations never grow much bigger than a few centimeters, most are below 10 cm, while some can reach up to 20 cm. They often occur in large and dense colonial beds on rocky shores where water depth ranges between 5 and 10 m. They spawn in spring and summer and are predated upon by sea snails, crabs, sea urchins, and seabirds [2].

Other Mussels

Other North American species of mussel include, the California mussel (Mytilus californianus) [3], occurring only along the Pacific coast, and the foolish mussel (M. trossulus) [4], the northern horsemussel (Modiolus modiolus) [5], and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa) [6] all occurring along both coasts.


1.         Gosling EM: Bivalve molluscs: biology, ecology and culture. Malden, MA, USA: Fishing News Books; 2003.

2.         “Mytilus edulis Linnaeus, 1758.” []

3.         "Mytilus californianus Conrad, 1837." []

4.         "Mytilus trossulus Gould, 1850." []

5.         "Modiolus modiolus Linnaeus, 1758." []

6.         "Geukensia demissa Dillwyn, 1817." []


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Blue mussel
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California mussel
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Foolish mussel
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© Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory
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Northern horsemussel
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Ribbed mussel
© Ken-ichi Ueda, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License license:
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network