By Terry Vandewater.

If the world is our oyster, then southeastern Massachusetts is the epicenter.

And not just for oysters, but for a variety of bivalve mollusks, including clams and mussels. Such an aquatic abundance, all with different names, can cause some confusion. What’s the difference between a cherrystone and a Sweet Petite, or an Ipswich clam and a blue mussel? I queried some of my friends, New Englanders to be specific, and they too were a bit perplexed. Let’s just say that more than 50% thought a cherrystone was an oyster. I was not alone! So how do we clear up this confusion? And how do we make it easy?

There are 1.2 million acres of shellfish beds in Massachusetts alone. For our purposes, I will refer to species-specific to Southeastern Massachusetts. Briefly, clams, oysters, and mussels are all bivalve aquatic mollusks, meaning they have hinged, two-sided symmetrical shells with each side of the shell having a valve. In the clam family, there are hard shell and soft shell species. Both have siphons to filter water, with the hard shell clam sporting a short siphon, enabling it to close its shell. The hard shell clam is called a Northern Quahog. Within the quahog family are littlenecks, cherrystones, and the quahog or chowder clam—the difference lies in the age of the clam and hence its size. Ocean Quahogs are a separate species and are primarily sold to food producers for chowder, canned minced clams, and breaded clam strips.

Soft shell clams, or steamers, have a more brittle shell. The soft shell clam’s siphon protrudes out of its shell, so the shell does not close completely. In addition, soft shell clams aren’t typically eaten raw. A favorite at clambakes, soft shell clams also are known as Ipswich clams.

Oysters in our region are generally from the species Crassostrea virginica. Within this species are a variety of different oysters named for the local waters in which they live. For example, Wellfleet oysters are from Wellfleet Harbor. Because the waters in the various locales possess different attributes—more salty or more seaweedy, for example—the taste of an oyster will closely match its aquatic environs.

Mussels are the simplest to understand. In Southeastern Massachusetts, there is one common species, the blue mussel. Its only variable is in the color of the meat—females are whitish-beige and males are orange.

So, armed with a little bit of information—a dangerous thing for sure—I’ve created the chart below to help my fellow mollusk-challenged compatriots. Hopefully, a better-educated consumer will become an enthusiastic ambassador to promote our very own fruits of the sea.


Hardshell Clams
Mercenaria mercenaria

  • Littlenecks
    (10 to 12 pieces per pound)

Habitat: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound
Appearance: smallest of Quahogs, less than 2” in diameter; 1” hinge; thick gray shell, the most tender of the hard shell clams
Flavor: delicate, slightly chewy, sweetest of the clams, buttery
Best served: On the half shell, grilled, steamed

  • Cherrystones
    (3 to 5 pieces per pound)

Habitat: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound
Appearance: middle-sized Quahogs, 2 to 3” in diameter; 2” hinge, thick gray shell
Flavor: firmer than little necks, briny, more intense flavor
Best Served: On the Half Shell, steamed, grilled, chowders, Clams Casino

  • Quahogs aka Chowder Clams
    (1 to 2 pieces per pound)

Habitat: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound
Appearance: at least 3” in diameter, 2.” hinge, thick gray shell with a tinge of purple on the inside
Flavor: chewiest of Quahogs, full of flavor
Best Served: chowders, clam sauce, stuffed quahogs, slow cooked to tenderize, chopped, diced

Softshell Clams
Mya arenaria

  • Steamers, aka Ipswich Clams

Habitat: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts Bay
Appearance: brittle shells that require careful handling
Flavor: tender, sweet
Best served: steamed, fried, stews, clam-baked, (remember to remove casing of siphon/neck)

Mytilus edulis

  • Blue Mussels

Habitat: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Rhode Island Sound
Appearance: 2 to 4”, oval in shape; colors range from blue, purple, black, brown; inside is a pearly, iridescent white; has a beard; meat ranges from yellow to orange with a black rim
Flavor: sweet; rich; somewhat smoky
Best served: steamed, stuffed

Crassostrea virginica

Best Served: On the Half Shell, poached, as Oyster Stew or Oysters Rockefeller

Here are some of our local farms:

2Rock Oyster Farm, Duxbury (read about them here.)

Cotuit: Cotuit Harbor, Cape Cod

Cuttyhunk: West End Pond, Buzzards Bay (read about them here.)

Ichabod Flat Oysters: Plymouth, MA (read more here.)

Island Creek: Duxbury Bay (read more here.)

Katama Bay: Katama Bay, Martha’s Vineyard

Nasketucket: Nasketucket Bay

Onset (wild): Buzzards Bay

Riptide Oyster Co. Westport (read about them here.)

South Bay Blonde Oysters: Onset, Massachusetts.

Peter’s Point: Buzzard’s Bay

Plymouth Rock: Plymouth Harbor

Riptide: Buzzards Bay

Rocky Nook: Kingston MA

Row 34, Duxbury MA

Spindrift, Westport

Sweet Petites: Katama Bay, Martha’s Vineyard

Wellfleet: Cape Cod Bay

Wianno: Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound

Additional resources: 

The Massachusetts Aquaculture Association

Oysterater – oyster farms all over the world

Terry Vandewater can now differentiate between bivalves. Her next goal is to embrace a sustainable lifestyle and get her friends and family to do the same.