Can Scotland flex its mussels?

Last week’s publication of preliminary results from a major study on the prospects and opportunities for shellfish farming in Scotland provided insight into the slow growth of this sector over the past decade.

The report, prepared by Stirling University for the Scottish government, found that although rope-grown mussel production increased from 1,400 metric tons in 1999 to 5,800 metric tons in 2008, it remains very low compared to the rest of the European Union.

It suggested that increased production in the short to medium term should come from improved efficiency on existing sites and the use of idle sites, because the average production in 2008 was equivalent to just 9 metric tons per 200-meter longline, compared with typical industry yields for active sites of around 40 metric tons.

Market development was considered to go hand-in-hand with increased production, in order to maintain and secure premium outlets for Scottish rope-grown mussels. Another crucial element is a reduction in production costs, largely through improved efficiencies, in order to offset a potential erosion of price in line with increased volumes on the market.

However, researchers found plenty of scope to increase consumption in the United Kingdom, where per-capita mussel consumption is only 0.3 kilograms, compared with 2 kilograms in France and 5 kilograms in Belgium. The majority of Scottish mussels (80 percent) are sold at retail, split 50-50 on live product and value-added cooked product. Retail sales grew 28 percent between 2008 and 2009, but this was largely driven by price promotions, which is not a sustainable way forward.

Opportunities also exist within the EU, where the market absorbs more than 500,000 metric tons of mussels per year. Recent shortfalls in domestic production in some countries, including the Netherlands, have been made up with imports from Chile.

Meanwhile, talks are ongoing between the EU and the United States to achieve harmonization of controls on live mollusks, which will hopefully result in a reciprocal arrangement to allow imports and exports across the Atlantic. Currently, exports to the United States from the EU and imports from the United States to the EU (excluding wild scallop meat) are prohibited.

The Food Standards Agency, which represents the UK in the EU talks, is canvassing opinion from shellfish farmers and marketers to ascertain the level of support for open trade in mollusks between the two sides.

On the other side of the globe, New Zealand’s mussel production is set to rise dramatically over the next few years, as new offshore licences are developed. In anticipation of this, mussel companies have been putting a great deal of effort into finding new markets, and the work appears to have finally paid off.

Aotearoa Seafood, New Zealand Greenshell, Pacifica Seafood and Sanford have set up an office in China to market “New Zealand Pure Greenshell Mussels.” They see China as a new and important export market.

In addition, a recent delegation to China by representatives of Eastern Seafarms, which has just gained consent to set up New Zealand’s largest mussel farm, resulted in a lucrative contract to supply the Shandong Oriental Ocean Group with mussels for its new chain of premium seafood outlets. The company aims to open 500 stores over the next three years.

The annual order to Oriental Ocean is expected to be in the region of 20,000 metric tons, which is around two-thirds of New Zealand’s total mussel exports in 2008.   The United States is currently the largest market, taking some 11,000 metric tons per year.

When it comes to competing for mussel market share on a global scale, Scotland has its work cut out for it.

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