Mussels: Room for growth?
The key to selecting a good mussel is to ask, did it have a good life?
“When they’re stressed they grow a thicker shell for protection,” explains Matt Moretti, owner of Wild Ocean Aquaculture in Portland, Maine. Those reared in ideal conditions can concentrate their energy on growing more meat inside their shells.
As a shellfish farmer, Moretti’s primary job is to create a stress-free habitat for the blue mussels that he grows in Portland’s Casco Bay. Wild mussels are collected from the bay as juveniles then attached to ropes in sock-like netting that biodegrades by the time the mussels are old enough to get their footing. For 18 months, they are left to grow on ropes suspended into the water from 40-by-40-foot rafts. The only thing he adds are nets around the rafts to keep out the ever-hungry eider ducks that would easily strip an entire raft — two and a half miles of mussels — if they could get through.
Moretti says raft cultivation keeps the bivalves in the water column, and not on the sea floor or in the air. “They are in their optimal growth environment for their entire life, until they’re harvested,” he explains. “The whole process is elegant in its simplicity. We provide the ultimate habitat and protect them from predators.”
The growth of the mussel market was less than optimal in recent years. Though prices for farmed blue mussels have remained consistently low, hovering around $1.30 a pound for the past five years (give or take a nickel), mussel sales took a hit when the recession peaked. After steady growth, imports of farmed blue mussels from Canada, the largest supplier of mussels to the United States, dropped about half a million pounds from 2007 to 2008 to around 21.2 million pounds
But after a couple lean years, the mussel industry is growing again. In 2010, mussel imports from Canada reached almost 28 million pounds. The industry hopes promotional efforts will further that growth.
“The mussel industry has never before marketed the product and about three and a half years ago the processors got together and said, ‘We need to actively promote our product,’” says Linda Duncan, executive director of the Mussel Industry Council of North America in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.