Radiocarbon ages on mollusk shells, which account for about half of the more than 8,000 dates from cultural deposits on the west coast of North America, need to be corrected for the local marine reservoir effect (ΔR) to yield true ages. Assays on “prebomb” shells show that ΔR increases poleward, echoing the age gradient in offshore waters. The meridional gradient in ΔR is not appreciably affected by the transition either from an upwelling regime to a downwelling regime north of 40°N–45°N or from a winter maximum-high alkalinity river discharge pattern to a summer maximum-low alkalinity pattern at the same latitude, probably because these changes are offset by increasing storminess and tidal energy in coastal areas. Mesoscale variations in ΔR along this gradient are attributable to contrasts in shore morphology and exposure. Data from 123 shell-wood pairs reveal similar patterns of temporal variation in ΔR in the late Holocene in the coastal ecoregions. The characteristic temporal pattern echoes phases of variable El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity. The high degree of variability in ΔR argues against the indiscriminate application of regionally uniform or trans-Holocene ΔR values and demands improvements in spatiotemporal resolution if shell is used to date cultural deposits.