Mussel Foraging, Mussel Farming

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Just-harvested mussels are a treat to the eyes of an in-the-know seafood lover. The sharp-shelled mollusks ? which are the most plentiful shellfish along North American coastlines ? are often neglected in favor of more exotic (and less nutritious) bounty from the deep. A skillful-forager ? armed with a sharpened tire iron or heavy-bladed knife and a gunnysack ? can soon pack home a passel of the plump beauties (they taste best when they're two to three inches long) if he or she begins mussels hunting at low tide. Any beachcomber, however, would be well advised to check with the local health department or fisheries authorities before gathering the delectable edibles . . . since industrial or residential pollution may have affected mussel beds. If you're truly enamored of the tasty mollusk, you'll be pleased to learn that new methods have been developed and refined which allow you to raise the shellfish. . . and ? if you'd like ? even market your surplus to local seafood outlets or restaurants.
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Fresh from the sea steamed musselsserved on the half shell with rice: just one savory, easy-to-prepare dishes you can whip up in a flash with the marvelous morsels.

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.

Other than the lab tests which health departments routinely
make, there’s no easy way to know when your area’s
shellfish might be affected by a red tide. (Some people
think that the “glow” that sometimes appears in sea water
— also caused by micro-organisms, and called
“bioluminescence” — is a sure signal of danger …
but some luminescent plankton is nontoxic, and some toxic
plankton is nonluminescent.)

Nor can you you lessen the poisonous effects through any
method of cooking or pickling. And don’t count on
a small “taste test” to warn you, because — during
heavy plankton blooms a single, three-inch mussel could be
deadly. Play it safe and check with the health department
before you gather!

(A mild case of shellfish poisoning begins with numbness
and tingling around the lips and tongue and moves to the
face and neck. There may also be a “prickly” feeling in the
toes and fingertips as well as some dizziness, headache,
and nausea. If the problem is more severe, the speech will
become incoherent … the limbs prickly, stiff, and
uncoordinated. There may be a rapid pulse and some problem
in breathing. Extreme saxitoxin ingestion is characterized
by great breathing difficulty, muscular paralysis, and
choking. If you experience any of these symptoms
after eating any shellfish, have someone take you
to the hospital right away.)

Forage a Feast

Once you’ve checked and found that your waters have been
declared safe for shellfish foraging, get whatever license
might be required (the local Fish and Game Commission
office can give you all the necessary information). Then
— equipped with a sharpened tire iron or heavy-bladed
knife and a gunnysack or other container — you can
set out, at low tide, on your search.

Mussels are tastiest when they’re from two to three inches
long. As you gather them, make sure the shells are closed
tightly — or that they snap shut when you grab the
creatures — and don’t collect any mollusks that are
full of sand. (To avoid taking more than you can use, keep
in mind that two dozen mussels per person will constitute a
hefty meal!)

Back at home, your harvest should be scrubbed clean and the
“beard” ( the byssus threads that mussels spin to attach
themselves to inanimate objects and to one
another) should be pulled out or clipped off just prior to
cooking. (They can be left on as “handles” if you
plan to eat the mussels right out of the shell.)

Prepare the marvelous morsels as soon as possible after you
gather them. If you can’t consume your catch right away,
however, you can keep them — on ice or in
cold fresh water — for a day or two.

You’ll find the little mollusks easy to cook. You can steam
them in wine, beer, or water (use about 1/2 cup of liquid
for two dozen mussels, and let them simmer for eight
minutes) or bake them at 400°F, with 1/2 cup of liquid,
for 15 to 18 minutes. They’ll “announce” when they’re ready
by opening wide. ( Remember that the less the shellfish are
cooked, the better they’ll taste … and that the meat
tends to shrink if it’s overdone.) The following recipes
are just a few of the ways you can prepare your foraged
feast:

Steamed in Beer

Cook a couple of slices of onion and some garlic ( the
amount of which will be determined by your enthusiasm for
the aromatic herb) in 3 tablespoons of butter … then
add 1/3 cup of minced parsley, some pepper, and 1/2 cup of
brew. Put this mixture in a Dutch oven with a couple of
dozen freshly scrubbed mussels, and let them simmer for 8
or 10 minutes (or, again, until the mollusks have opened … throw away any mussel that stays closed). Serve the
seafood with melted butter and napkins!   

Mussel Chowder

Steam a few dozen mussels in water and remove the meat.
Then strain the juice through cheesecloth and add clam
juice (if needed) to make 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Chop and
sauté an onion, a stalk or two of celery, and a few
carrots in butter and add a touch of rubbed thyme, a bay
leaf, and a cup of chicken broth. Combine this with the
“mussel juice” and cook a cup of diced potatoes in it. In
15 minutes add the shellfish meat, 1 1/2 cups of
half-and-half, and a bit of parsley. Heat it again to
serve, but don’t let it boil.   

Mussels and Rice

Fry up 1 medium-sized onion, 1 cup of mushrooms, and some
garlic (to taste). Pour in the rice ( use 1 cup to serve 4
people) and let it cook for 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of
pitted, black olives and 1/2 cup of sweet pimentos. Using
mussel juice (strained) or chicken broth, add 2 parts of
liquid to 1 part rice. Cook the dish for about 15 minutes,
or until the juice is absorbed, on medium-low heat. Stir in
the meat of a few dozen steamed mussels (and a dozen or
more shrimp, if you have them on hand) … cook the
mixture for 2 more minutes … and sprinkle it with
parsley before serving.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For some other delicious mussel
recipes, see
Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Blue-Eyed
Scallop (David McKay Company, Inc.), which is
available in many bookstores and libraries.]

Mussel Farming

Now that you know how easy it is to gather
mussels, you may think it’s ridiculous to talk about
raising them. But cultured mussels have a number
of advantages over their wild cousins. First, homegrown
shellfish are usually meatier and better tasting. Second,
the foraged mussels sometimes contain ugly black “pearls,”
harmless but crunchy parasites not found in the farmed
variety. Third, the domesticated mollusks are more readily
available, and — when you grow your crop suspended
from floats — you don’t even have to wait for low
tide to harvest. Finally, cultured mollusks are easier to
market.

There are a number of ways of raising mussels. In Holland,
“seed” shellfish spawn are spread along the bottom of
shallow inland seas where they grow to maturity, while in
France it’s common to see the mollusks thriving on oak
poles driven into the ocean bottom. The most popular and
successful method, worldwide, is to grow them on ropes
suspended from rafts.

The easiest technique for a family -sized
saltwater crop, however, is simply to culture the mussels
on the pilings of an old pier. Assuming that you can obtain
permission to utilize such a structure, you’ll be able to
start farming for a minimal investment. The mollusks will
either grow there of their own accord, or you can gather
small mussels from a low-tidal bed ( collect them from an
area with few barnacles, if you can find such a spot) and
transplant them to the posts from June or July through
September.

Medium-gauge netting will hold the “youngsters” in place
for the two weeks or so it will take for them to become
attached to the poles. Once that happens, you can work at
thinning them and keeping away predators ( mostly starfish,
sea squirts, perch, flounder, moonsnails, oyster drills,
crabs, and birds) … or you can just let nature take its
taxes, and keep the survivors for yourself.

Most successful commercial mussel farmers, on the other
hand, find that the raft method allows the most efficient
use of space, and — because most of the creatures
that prey on the mollusks are bottom dwellers —
keeping the culturing ropes off the sea bed protects the
crop. (Should you plan to use this system, however, you
must accept the fact that the public has not always been
eager to welcome mussel rafts. If you encounter such a
problem, you’d better brush up on your public relations
skills and perhaps offer to split your harvest with one or
two waterfront landowners.)

The technique of “raft ranching” is a simple one. You
merely anchor your structure in a bay or cove which already
has a mussel population, and encourage the spawn to grow on
ropes suspended from the float. Most farmers use wooden
platforms or old rubber tires buoyed with foam (or some
other flotation material). It could be a bit expensive to
construct a raft from scratch, but you can often buy old
floats or docks at reasonable prices. ( You can even use a
few tied-together logs, but such assemblies usually sink
after a year or two.)

The exact methods of operating a mussel-raising
raft differ a lot from coast to coast, and even from one
bay to the next. In general, the platforms are placed in
waters which have only light currents and are between 30
and 60 feet deep. Nylon or Manila ropes are then spaced
some 30 inches apart and allowed to hang 10 to 30 feet down
into the water … with four-inch-long sticks (lengths
of half-inch-diameter dowel will do) placed every two feet
or so to keep the mussels from sliding off the lines.

(The only way to find out exactly what depth and cord
spacing will work best is to experiment … unless you
can find another — successful — mussel farmer
in the same cove and copy his or her system.)

Catching the Spat

As you might well imagine, getting the mussels to
settle on your ropes is sometimes tricky. The
“spat,” as mussel spawn is called, is produced in the late
spring. It will attach to almost any substrate it can find,
but if your ropes are set out too soon, other creatures (
such as barnacles) may take up the space. On the other
hand, if you wait too long to position your lines, there
may not be enough spawn to give you a good harvest. The
spat usually begins in early May, and your crop — if
you get one — will become apparent by the end of
July.

The spat sets best in the upper two or three meters of
water, so you can either plan to thin the mussels and
reposition some of them along the length of the rope (a lot
of work), or simply run the rope — horizontally
— in the top layers of water during the setting
season. In Spain, where the accumulation of great numbers
of mussels often makes thinning necessary, the outer layers
of shellfish are routinely stripped off and attached to new
ropes with water-soluble rayon … which will rot away as
the mussels form webs of their own.

(Any thinning or transplanting should be done on overcast
days, since bright sunshine hinders the byssus growth …
and, even though mussels are generally thought to favor
water with a high light intensity, experiments have shown
that their weight gain can be increased by as much as 69%
by placing sun screens over the timber framework from which
the ropes are suspended.)

Your crop will reach good eating size (two inches, plus) in
12 to 15 months, but the precise time of harvest is always,
of course, controlled by red tide conditions. The yield
will vary, but five pounds of mussels per foot of rope per
year is about an average figure for a good operation.
(Current prices range from $1.00 to $2.00 a pound, cleaned
off and delivered — alive and still in their shells
— to restaurants.)

Harvesting can be a chore or very easy, depending on how
much care you take. It’s possible to raise each line and
pick off only the salable mussels … but the procedure
is time-consuming. A better method — according to
many Maine shellfish farmers — is to take off
all the mussels, and then put any too-small ones
back on the ropes.

Wash the mollusks well before you market them, getting rid
of the worst clumps of trash, dead shells, stones, and so
forth. But don’t break up the mussel clusters themselves
unless your buyer insists; since — if you pull out
the threads from the insides of the little creatures and
thereby damage them — you’ll find it difficult to get
your entire crop to market alive.

Deadly Red Tape

Naturally, there are obstacles that can make
setting up a successful mussel farm pretty difficult. The
worst of them is probably that hideous creation known as
“red tape.” Getting permission to put in a mussel raft
requires filling out sheaves of forms. The Army Corps of
Engineers has to rule on your hazard to navigation …
the county must decide whether or not you’ll be in
compliance with local zoning … and every state agency
imaginable must — it appears — rule on your
application.

The permit process for a big operation could take as much
as a year to 18 months and cost several hundred dollars.
There is no way to get around the procedure, and
only a few things you can do to ease your way through it.
First, keep your proposal simple. The less expensive your
raft (and the less ambitious the plan), the less you’re
likely to be hassled by the bureaucrats. Second, talk to
anyone and everyone who has been through the process
before. And third, apply for as many permits simultaneously
as possible ( an approach which involves more work
initially but, with luck, will shorten your wait).

If you’re serious about “going commercial” with mussels,
you may have to do your own recruiting of restaurants that
will buy your crop … and that can involve
selling the “idea” of mussels as well. Certainly,
no restaurant will buy mussels from an unlicensed
and uncertified shellfish dealer (check with the health
department, again, to learn the requirements).

Your crop must be inspected regularly to insure that it
hasn’t been affected by “red tide” or pollution. While the
state will usually pick up the tab for such tests, in some
places (especially California) health departments haven’t
been anxious to grant permits for mussel farms, because
they don’t feel they have the manpower to check on such
operations. You’d better be sure, then, that your product
can be inspected regularly before venturing very far into
large scale mussel cultivation.

Also, be sure to take advantage of the reams of available
information on raising your sea crop. A lot of universities
are interested in ocean farming, so a call to nearby
institutions of higher learning may bring as much help as
anyone could need!