Kellet's Whelk

The Science

Kellet’s whelk feeds using a prehensile proboscis that extends about twice the length of the shell to reach food in crevices.

The Fishery

Whelk landings in California likely pre-date 1979, but started to steadily increase in 1993 with the highest take in 2006 at 87 metric tons (the cargo capacity of a Boeing 747)!

The Seafood

Prehistoric snack? Kellet’s whelk shells have been found in archeological and paleontological sites in Southern California.

The Science

scubacayman88, flikr creative commons

Taxonomic description

  • One of the largest sea snails found in southern California [1].
  • Has spindle shaped, spiraled shell that can reach 18 cm (7”) in length [1].
  • Shells are white to tan with brown spiral lines., but as they age the shell gets covered with light green or purple algae and other encrusting organisms [1].
  • The foot tissue is colored yellow with a few black stripes and white spots. 


  • Found from central Baja California, Mexico to Point Conception, Calif [1]

Life history

  • Much is still unknown about its life cycle
  • Growth rates are not well studied, but are thought to be slow at 0.75-1 cm (0.3“ to 0.4”) per year until sexual maturity; and only 9 cm (3.5”) after 20 years [1]
  • Females become sexually mature between 6.6 - 7.1 cm (2.6 - 2.8”), slightly smaller for males [1]
  • Fertilization is internal with annual spawning periods March – May [2]
  • Egg capsules are deposited on hard substrate with fertilized embryos inside that develop and emerge into the water column as free swimming larvae for an unknown amount of time [2]


  • Commonly found in kelp forests and on rocky reef habitats, on both rocky, hard and sandy, soft substrates.  [1]
  • Usually found from 0 m (0 ft) down to 69 m (230 ft) depths. Rarely found in the intertidal zone, although occasionally at lowest elevations or in tide pools [1,2]
  • Are opportunistic carnivores that feed on dead or dying organisms on the sea floor [1] or will actively pursue prey such as turban snails [2].
  • Predators include the moon snail, sea stars, octopus, and sea otters [1]
  • Can be seen feeding along side its predator the giant sea star.

The Fishery

Alisha Utter

Seasonal availability

  • In California, open season from July 1 through the first Wednesday after March 15th unless the Total Allowable Catch of 45,360 kg (100,000 lbs) for the season is reached or projected to be reached in which case the fishery closes [4]

Managing authority

  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife has recently designated and regulated the species as an “emerging fishery”.

Gear type

  • Caught as bycatch in lobster and crab traps:In 2008, 98% of all harvested Kellet’s whelks were taken via lobster and crab traps [5]  
  • Harvested by hand by licensed commercial fishermen (divers collect further than 305 m or 1000 ft beyond the low tide mark)

Status of the fishery

  • Commercial fishery relatively new; minimal information on the impact of recent increased commercial demands.
  • Potentially vulnerable to overfishing due to slow growth rates and need for relatively high density for aggregate spawning. 
  • However, if the Total Allowable Catch limits are coupled with collaborative data collections & management decisions, responsible growth of this fishery should continue.
  • Not yet assessed in the common sustainable fish guides (e.g., NMFS Fish Stock Sustainability Index, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, NOAA Fishwatch.)

Potential ecosystem impacts

  • Intensive removal of this predaceous whelk, may increase numbers of its prey,  grazers of kelp & other seaweeds (e.g., urchins, limpets, and snails) [6], which can lead to seaweed overgrowth in rocky reefs & kelp forests [7].
  • Collection methods are low impact—with hand (diver) collection having virtually no impact, and traps potentially causing  damage to the seafloor in rough conditions.

The Seafood

Edible portions

  • Muscular foot which is similar to abalone.

Description of meat

  • Flesh is firm and chewy if untenderized, firm and tender once tenderized.
  • Meat is known to be juicy and salty [10]

Culinary uses

  • Meat is usually removed from shell for use [e.g., 12]
  • To tenderize, meat may be frozen for 5 min, pounded, or pressure cooked.
  • Minimal cooking required, 10-15 min in boiling salt water does the trick
  • Can serve from shell after lightly boiling  
  • Use in soups, chowders, fish pies, pasta dishes & seafood salads.
  • Featured ingredient in whelk fritters & scungilli, a classic Italian salad

Nutritional information  

  • Whelk, cooked, moist heat (3 oz)[8]

Toxicity report

  • No known toxins.

Seasonal availability

  • Available fresh from July – March[11] 


1. Hubbard, Kristin. 2008. Kellet’s whelk. Status of the Fisheries Report 2008. California Dept. Fish & Wildlife, Available: 

2. SIMoN. Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network – Kellet’s Whelk – Available:'s-whelk  

3. Rosenthal R.J. 1971. Trophic interaction between the sea star Pisaster giganteus and the gastropod Kelletia kelletii. Fishery Bulletin 69: 669-679

4. "Kellet's Whelk Fishing Regulations." Invertebrate Management Project. Department of Fish and Wildlife, 14 Mar. 2012.

5. Hubbard, K. 2008. Kellet’s whelk, Kelletia kelletii. Status of the Fisheries Report 2008. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 28 July 2013. <>. 

6. Halpern et al. 2006. Strong Top-Down Control in Southern California Kelp Forest Ecosystems. Science312: 1230-1232.

7. Denny, M. W., S.D. Gaines. 2007. Encyclopedia of tidepools and rocky shores. Berkeley: University of California Press.

8. SELF Nutrition Data. 20013. "Mollusks, whelk, unspecified, cooked, moist heat. 

9. Waterman, J.J. 2001. Processing Mussels, Cockles and Whelk. Food and Agriculture Organization. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. 

10. BBC. 2013. Whelk Recipes. BBC - Food Ingredients.

11. Hubbard, K. 2008. Kellet’s whelk, Kelletia kelletii. Status of the Fisheries Report 2008. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 28 July 2013. <>

12.  “Cleaning a whelk.” YouTube. Posted 20 Feb 2009 by sellsfish. Web. 28 July 2013. <>.