By Bill Lawyer
Here in Rye we have some of the best public access to Long Island Sound beaches — from the rocky beach at Edith Read Sanctuary, through Playland’s beaches, all the way to the Rye Town Park beach at Dearborn Avenue.
The Nor’easter storms that drenched us in March may have caused some damage and taken away some of our sand, but they swept a lot of interesting marine life up above the normal tide level as well.
If you really want to see what’s going on with beach marine life, you have to look carefully and get down close to the sand. Bringing small children along is one way to do it.
Instead of counting and identifying beach critters, you can enjoy the walk and just stop every once in a while when something interesting catches your eye.
That’s what happened to me recently when combing Rye Town Park’s beaches to collect litter and recyclable debris. Among all the broken clam and scallop shells I came upon an object that I was not able to identify right away. It was a long chain made up of many links that almost looked like they had been somehow been “manufactured,” sort of a plastic bicycle chain.
Somewhere in the back reaches of my brain I knew that I had seen this sort of thing before, and might have studied it as well but I wasn’t sure where. Maybe it had something to do with egg casings.
When you can’t remember the name of something, it’s hard to know how to find it. But I typed in “egg chain” on Google search, and low and behold I found the answer on the first try. It was the egg casing, produced to store the eggs of a whelk.
The whelk itself is a gastropod in the same general category as land and sea snails. Some species have beautiful colors; most are gray or brown but have developed some special features. They also come in all sizes and shapes.
Whelks can be appreciated as examples of nature’s beauty, as well as amazing outcomes of natural selection. They are carnivores that possess a “tool” to drill through the shell of their prey. Whelk egg casings are produced in long chains, with each section holding thousands of eggs. Fishermen call them “mermaid necklaces.”
They grow by adding onto their shells — producing turns and whorls in its shell around a central axis. Females lay a string of eggs in deep water twice a year, usually from September to October and again April to May.
Soon after my beach walk I recalled that I had learned a lot about whelks from Anthony Doerr’s “All The Light We Cannot See.” Marie-Laure, the central character of the novel, takes on the code name “Whelk” for use in the French resistance during World War II in the coastal city of St. Malo. Despite being blind, she has the ability to identify whelks by touch. She chooses that name because of the strength and toughness these creatures have developed to protect them from seagulls’ attempts to pull them off rocks and devour them.
Humans have been eating whelks for thousands of years. They’re a common menu item at restaurants in British Cornwall and French Brittany, but Americans are only just coming around to enjoying them, having held them in the “ugh” category, like snails, previously.
In recent years, commercial whelk harvesting has become very profitable in in the coastal waters of New England.
The University of Rhode Island Sea Grant program provides a detailed description of how whelks are trapped.
“They are caught using rectangular wire or wooden traps that are baited with horseshoe crabs, quahogs, or fish parts. The traps are smaller and simpler in design than lobster traps.
The traps’ sides are lined with rubber, plastic, or wood strips that make it easier for the whelks to climb up to the top. Once there, they fall through a large square opening. A wire rim around the opening prevents them from getting out.
Traps are pulled every two to three days, depending on weather conditions.”
Whelk “feet” are processed and shipped to China, where they are very popular. Some end up in New York City’s Chinatown.
If whelk fishermen have their way, we may find these snails from the sea on the menus of Rye restaurants — harvested from the shorelines of Long Island Sound.
Egg casing chain on the beach
A knobbed whelk