Mussel Foraging, Mussel Farming

Do you like shellfish? Mussel foraging and mussel farming are two proven methods of getting them.

| November/December 1980

Nearly everyone who's been to the seashore has encountered mussels, the sharp-shelled mollusks that cling in huge colonies to rocks, ropes, and pilings. However, many folks don't know that — besides being among the most common North American coastal shellfish — mussels are one of the sea's best sources of food. They're easy to gather ... high in protein, minerals, and vitamins B-1 and B-2 ... and extremely tasty. Furthermore, under proper conditions the little saltwater wonders can be farmed, harvested, and sold at a nice profit!

A Shellfish Sampler

There are several varieties of this prolific mollusk, and a majority of the species are edible ... though not all of them are palatable. Most seafood fans feel that the Northern Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis ), with its blue black shell and deep violet interior, is the sweetest and most delicious. Abundant from the Arctic to Cape Hatteras, the "blue" is found in most eastern American waters north of the 35th parallel, as well as in Europe, in a few coastal areas of California (where it's been introduced), and even in parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

Only a bit less tasty, in the opinion of most folks, is the Modiolus rectus — a glossy, dark brown mussel with a white interior — which is found from Vancouver, B.C. to southern California ... and Mytilus californianus , the light brown California Mussel. (However, a number of varieties that flourish along the southeast coast — from New Jersey to Florida — are usually thought of as barely edible. These include the Atlantic Striated Mussel, Modiolus demissus , and the Bent or Hooked Mussel, Mytilus recurvus. )

The common shellfish are very easy to gather ... all a hungry forager has to do is locate a colony of mussels and pry his or her dinner loose from its moorings. The specimens residing in deeper water will be the plumpest, because they've had the best opportunity to feed. While those found higher up on the beach are not poisonous , as some folks believe, they are less meaty (the shallow water clusters are also more likely to include dead shellfish).

Commonsense Caution

Since mussels feed on plankton and other microscopic organisms, they can absorb toxic substances, including those resulting from industrial or residential pollution. Therefore, any expedition to gather shellfish (clams, oysters, or mussels) should begin with a call to the local health department to see whether the waters are polluted or afflicted with "red tide" ... the name given a phenomenon — caused by certain plankton — that can make all mollusks in an area temporarily poisonous. (Because of the latter naturally occurring hazard, mussels are quarantined, along the California coast, from May to October ... and in other regions during various portions of the warm-water seasons.)

The saxitoxin that the microscopic organisms create is a powerful paralyzer for which there's no antidote. If you take in enough, you'll go numb all over and stop breathing, sometimes within half an hour.

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