Bycatch of the Day: Texas Whelks

At the Foodways Texas Gulf symposium P.J. Stoops spoke at a bycatch panel. He explained that somebody is interested in eating nearly everything caught in a fishing boat. For lunch, Chris Shepherd demonstrated the point by serving the sea snails variously known as “oyster drills, biganos,” or “whelks.” Shepherd boiled these in crawfish boil for an hour and a half. They were nice and tender with a flavor not all that different from escargot. I would have liked them in garlic butter sauce–but I applaud Shepherd for allowing us to taste them unadorned first. To eat them, you pull the sea snail out of the shell with a nail and then peel off the tough foot.

Oystermen find these in their dredges quite often. They are known as “oyster drills” because they bore into the shells of oysters and suck out the oyster meat. The oystermen used to throw them in the parking lot to kill them–they were delighted to find out that chefs were willing to pay for them. I have had these in France on fruit de mers platters and in the Virgin Islands where they are called whelks. In the Virgin Islands they quick cook them in a pressure cooker, then slice them thin and sautee them in a little garlic butter–the same way they serve conch.

The panel titled: “The Strangest Thing in the Nets: Bycatch, ‘Trashfish,’ and Gulf Sustainability,” was moderated by food writer Jenny Wang with panelists Bryan Caswell of Reef, Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club, and P. J. Stoops of Louisiana Foods weighing in on the impact of current fishing practices in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Many don’t realize that the Gulf of Mexico is the second most productive fishery in the world,” said P. J. Stoops “However, unless we increase awareness and change our harvesting methods, access to seafood options we enjoy today will be drastically reduced in as few as 5 to 10 years.”

4 thoughts on “Bycatch of the Day: Texas Whelks

  1. Laura

    I was amazed at how tender these little guys were… I was fully prepared to chew for a while.

    And — shocker! — they tasted like shellfish. Which is to say, yummy.

    Great post.

  2. Tim

    I’m pretty sure these are the same sea snails you can get in the “special” dim sum line at Kim Son or Fung’s. I’ve also seen them in some of the Asian markets (Viet Hoa and H Mart). Surely the oystermen have been selling to the Asian community for a while now, right?

    I’ll definitely be packing a nail with me the next time I go to dim sum. The chopsticks just don’t work that well for me in prying those suckers out.

    Echoing Laura’s comment, this is a great post! I always look forward to Robb’s posts, I’ve never read one and not learned something new and interesting!

  3. pj stoops

    Thanks for talking about them, Robb. Those little guys certainly deserve a place at our tables.

    As far as I am aware, NO marketing or selling of these things for a long time on the Gulf Coast. A canning industry briefly existed in LA in the 1940s, but never took off.

    Asian communities in general are more comfortable with critters in shells, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they were found there…haven’t seen them yet at an Asian market, but again, wouldn’t be surprised.

  4. RL Lefort

    We ate tons of these growing up in Louisiana, either boiled or in a seafood gumbo. In the early 1980s, my cousin and I would harvest about 3/4 of a bushel a morning diving near the marina in Grand Isle. Some people would harvest by sticking poles in the bays, near oyster beds. The biganos would attach themselfs to the poles.

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