Shellfish production growth in Europe means more mussels

Published on
February 4, 2015

“Production growth in shellfish culture” was the subject of a recent conference in the Netherlands, where around 100 shellfish farmers, processors, scientists and government officials heard from international speakers about new production techniques and market prospects, the latest research results and funding opportunities.

An adjacent mini-exhibition of shellfish equipment was well-attended, with exhibitors coming from all over the globe. Delegates also enjoyed a visit to the Dutch mussel auction at Yerseke, which handles all mussel sales, and to the Neeltje Jans mussel farm, processing unit and café, where mussel croquettes were enjoyed.

Miguel Antonio Cunha, manager of the Portuguese fishing company Testa & Cunhas, which recently started farming mussels in the Algarve region of Portugal, spoke of the challenges they had faced in adding aquaculture to their fishing operation. “We realized that we know fishing but we don’t know mussels and there is so much to learn!” he said.

Branded “Algarve Seashells,” and certified as organic, the company’s initial crop of fresh mussels found a ready market in Spain and France over the winter months and they hope to expand production capacity to around 9,000 metric tons (MT) in the coming years.

Finnian O’Luasa, European Seafood Manager for Bord Bia, the Irish food board, spoke about the importance of organic mussels in his own country’s development strategy. He explained that of the 15,000 MT produced each year, more than half now have organic certification.

Ireland grows just 7 percent of the total Mytilus edulis crop of 200,000 MT produced in Northern Europe, with France accounting for 32 percent, Denmark and the Netherlands for 20 percent each and the UK for 17 percent. Germany and Sweden account for 3 percent and 1 percent respectively.

With relatively little production consumed domestically, Ireland relies heavily on exports, sending half of its market-sized mussels to the Netherlands, one third to France, and the remainder to Italy, UK, Spain and Germany. Organic certification is seen as a way to help add value to that export.

Irish salmon certified by Naturland started the trend in 2001, when it became the first organic seafood to be recognized by the French Ministry of Agriculture, and allowed to bear the French AB — agriculture biologique label. Both products have now adopted the new EU organic standard.

O’Luasa was asked how organic mussels differ from other mussels, given that they grow from seed settled from the wild and require no feeding. He explained that the requirements of certification included the need for seed to be responsibly sourced from sustainable stock (some of the mussels have MSC certification), respect for nature and biodiversity, no use of anti-fouling on vessels, and respect for other users by working with local communities.

“It all makes for good farming practice, but the most important thing is that ‘organic’ is a label that is recognized and respected by a growing number of people throughout Europe. Consumers may still be confused by sustainability labels but they know that ‘organic’ means that care and attention for the environment has gone into the production process, which translates into quality in their eyes.”

“France is our largest consumer market and there are a lot of quality labels already out there to compete with, including regional brands, but organic gives us a USP and is working well.”

Ineke Nijssen, sales manager at Krijn Vervijs, works closely with Irish producers and is keen for more of the production to embrace organic principles. “We are selling into a well-established niche market for organic products and demand is growing,” she said.

Under its ‘Premier’ brand, Krijn Vervijs sells organic rope and bottom grown mussels from Ireland in 10kg hessian sacks and 1kg and 2kg MAP packed trays.

Delegates heard that the Netherlands leads the field when it comes to branding their products and in producing point of sale material to help generate sales in retail and food service outlets. The Premier brand is a prime example, with branded promotional items including aprons, t-shirts and hats, flags, pavement signs, posters, stickers, banners and carrier bags, mussel cooking pans, table cards and placemats. These are highly popular, particularly in the main target country of Belgium, which has one of the highest per capita consumption rates for mussels in the world.

“The Belgians don’t grow mussels, but they certainly know how to enjoy them!” said Ineke.

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