Mussels: An Overview & Industry Opinions

Please note: mussels are animals, so between May through July, you may see signs of spawn. Find recommended handling tips here. Make sure to share these best practices with your customers to minimize quality concerns.

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

We spend a lot of time talking about oysters because that's a majority of our business, but we wouldn’t be a shellfish company without mussels. On the East Coast, PEI mussels are king. They are affordable, clean, and supply is almost year-round. Many customers have asked us for them, but we have to explain that we carry only one mussel. That mussel is the Hollander & DeKoning Dutch style mussel out of Maine. Both are Blue Mussels from the North Atlantic, but their cultivation methods differ and so does their merroir. These distinctions set them apart in flavor and in quality.

A mussel overview

There are many species of mussels in the world, and about 17 of them are edible. The most common are Blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis), Pacific Blue mussels (Mytilus trossellus), and New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus). Like oysters, they are filter-feeders that consume algae and plankton from the water.

Mussels are available wild or farmed, but nearly 90% of the world’s mussel supply is now cultivated. Wild mussels live along intertidal zones, clinging to rocks or bottom surfaces with their byssal threads. Cultivated mussels also cling to surfaces, but growers strategically attach them to different off-bottom gear. Depending on the geographical features of an area, farmers may choose to cultivate mussels in the following ways.

Off-Bottom Methods

Longline cultivation

Longline cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Raft Cultivation

Raft Cultivation

  • Longline

    This is a common method of growing mussels in PEI. Longlines attached to buoys house many strands of seeded rope that hang vertically in the water column. Socking used can protect the mussels from falling off the rope or from predation.

  • Rope-and-pole (Bouchot)

    The rope-and-pole is a popular French method because it does not need a lot of space and produces clean and uniform mussels. Seeded ropes are wound around large poles that stick into the bay or harbor. The poles are then covered in fine netting known as a socking. These ropes provide a solid area for the juvenile mussels to attach to while the socking protects them from predation and falling loose.

  • Raft

    This method is quite common and easy to maintain in crowded areas as well. Lines of socking-covered seeded ropes hang from a raft where harvesters can gain easy access to the mussels at any tide.

  • Socking

    This method uses a long, single strand of rope covered in socking material anchored at both ends by buoys. The mussels are able to move along the tide while having access to the nutrients floating on the surface. This is a method predominantly used in New Zealand.

Bottom Culture Method (Dutch Style)

Bottom culturing is a hybrid method of wild growout and cultivation. Growers collect wild mussel seed and plant them on the sea floor bed without the aid of any rope or other gear. These mussels are more susceptible to predation and weather, but in the process, become more resilient.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like oyster farming, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Off-bottom methods do not need a ton of space and will guarantee higher product yield. These methods will also produce clean shells and clean meats, but their pampered lifestyle may lead to thinner shells. Potential overcrowding on ropes may also affect meat to shell ratio (1). Ultimately, the product strength will affect usage yield and shelf-life.

Bottom cultured mussels are more like wild mussels. They will have robust flavors, stronger shells, and more substantial meats. Unfortunately, like wild mussels, they can be gritty or dirty if they are not properly purged and cleaned. Farmers also need decent amount of acreage to plant and seed beds, so mussels do not get overcrowded. Aside from high operational costs, growers also have to assume the potential risk of losing product out in the open to Mother Nature.

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Maine mussels or PEI mussels?

In the North Atlantic region, most of the mussel supply hails from Canada (PEI) or Maine. Mark Bittman flat out rejected PEI mussels in a New York Time’s Diner’s Journal post. It was interesting to read his perspective on why he thought PEI mussels weren’t “the best.” We are clearly partial to our Maine Hollanders, but we got curious: what mussels do others in the industry prefer?

We reached out to a few chefs in the region to hear their opinion.

Rose Thornton – Seafood Executive and former Chef

Personally, I do not think there is enough of a difference between Maine cultured mussels and PEI mussels to warrant the price difference. Are there certain times of year that Maine mussel meats are far superior to PEIs? Certainly. But at their core, mussels are a restaurant's money maker. Whether a chef chooses to put white wine, buffalo sauce, or a teriyaki ginger fume over a couple pounds of mussels, they can make more on this well-loved friend to grilled bread than they will on a 32 oz porterhouse once the steam settles.

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Josephine Proul – Local 111

When I was first introduced to the crop of mussels from Bangs Island, I realized quickly it was not PEI in the best, most amazing way. They weren’t like the other basic mussels. The reality was that these mussels were in a category of their own: plump, briny and clean, consistent from mollusk to mollusk. I was also stoked that they were from Maine!! As a restaurant owner [who] supports and showcases as much regional products as possible, it makes these mussels approachable to the guest.

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Matt Drummond — Corporate Executive Chef, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Though PEI [mussels] typically are very easy to clean and uniform, I prefer Maine [mussels] due to their larger size. They have more of a true flavor in my opinion. I also believe that people are slowly more accustomed to seeing Maine mussels on menus, but they are uneducated on the differences compared to PEI -- mostly the fact that Maine mussels sometimes can have that wonderful natural thing called “sand” in them, which is pretty difficult to clean out before cooking.

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Paul Callahan – Chef, Brine Oyster Bar

It’s nice to see small-scale mussel growers making a name for themselves and taking the time to bring back rope grown mussels that are spaced appropriately. This conscious decision to put craft over money makes for a better product. The meat to shell ratio is perfect. The mussels don’t shrink out. The mussels are plumper. The flavors are a little bit more intense because of the “merroir” being more south in warmer waters.

Humans have consumed mussels for thousands of years, and they are found in cuisines all over the world. PEI, Maine, wild or cultivated, there is something warm and comforting about a large, steaming bowl of mussels. Can you tell the difference between Maine and PEI Mussels? Do you have a preference? Share your thoughts with us below.

And as always, #eatmoremussels.

Imidacloprid: a solution or an anathema?

A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances used to destroy, suppress or alter the life cycle of any pest. A pesticide can be a naturally derived or synthetically produced substance.

In this modern age, the thought of food pesticides turns many consumers off. Pesticides have been used since Sumerian agriculture 4500 years ago, but its effects on people have only been documented for the last fifty to sixty years. The research and findings have generated enough awareness and disgust to propel the organic movement, a return to what's natural, though many consumers are unaware that organic farms still use pesticides. The difference is, the pesticides are certified organic.

When it comes to oyster aquaculture, consumers mostly regard the farming practice to be positive and sustainable because farmed oysters live and grow in their natural habitat and do a lot of good for the environment. Recently, however, news of a pesticide permit for Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in Washington, the nation’s largest shellfish producing bay, has sparked outrage as the public learns of pesticide use in shellfish aquaculture for the first time.

The backlash caused the state to withdraw the pesticide permit approved last April, disappointing many Washington shellfish growers who were depending on it. So what’s going on? Why are Washington shellfish farms using pesticides?

A little background

Since at least the 1940s, the Pacific has been plagued with two native species of inedible burrowing shrimp. The shrimp feed by digging in the sediment, and in doing so, soften the sand and disrupt the structural integrity of the sediment causing shellfish to sink and suffocate. Eelgrass habitats that support other marine organisms are also affected because the sediment is too soft for roots. Once the shrimp take over, many of the tidal beds become useless as the shrimp get as dense as 400 shrimp per square meter.

Photo from Damian Mulinix | The Daily Astorian

Photo from Damian Mulinix | The Daily Astorian

The state recognized the damage caused by the shrimp and began testing various control methods. Carbaryl or Sevin, an insecticide, was approved in 1963 and was used until it was phased out in 2013 after carcinogenic effects were discovered. As water temperatures have warmed, the shrimp population has increased and without a way to control them, many commercial shellfishermen are watching the shrimp destroy their once productive beds that now look like moon craters.

The permit approved last April was for the use of imidacloprid, the most widely used insecticide in the world, even found in flea collars for pets. The dosage approved was 1/16th the dosage of carbaryl per acre, a highly diluted amount. Recent research, however, suggests imidacloprid may be responsible for the collapse of honey bees, and several countries have already restricted the use of such neurotoxins.

Photo From Steve Ringman | The Seattle Times

Photo From Steve Ringman | The Seattle Times

So should imidacloprid be permitted?

Arguments FOR imidacloprid

  • Imidacloprid is far safer than carbaryl and would be used in a smaller and highly diluted dosage applied by hand.
  • It would never be sprayed on oysters, only on the sediment before oysters are even seeded there months later.
  • It would prevent a worse case scenario of a 70-80% reduction of shellfish production – the bay currently yields about $35 million in product and is the economic backbone of Pacific County, employing many of its residents.
  • The insecticide does not kill the shrimp, but paralyzes it.
  • Burrowing shrimp is an invasive species destroying other parts of the ecosystem like eelgrass habitats and the estuaries.
  • Imidacloprid would only be sprayed in non-eelgrass areas with dense shrimp populations.
  • Many generational growers will lose their farms and not even be able to sell them because the flats are unproductive.
  • Imidacloprid is highly water soluble and has very low toxicity to fish even on an acute basis.
  • Bees do not frequent shellfish beds.

Arguments AGAINST imidacloprid

  • The burrowing shrimp are native species to Washington. The cultured gigas oyster originally from Japan is the invasive one.
  • There would be uncertain consequences to the aquatic ecosystem.
  • Because imidacloprid is highly water soluble, it shouldn’t be applied directly to water.
  • Although the imidacloprid paralyzes the shrimp, the shrimp eventually suffocate and die.
  • Imidacloprid is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates, moderately toxic to small birds, and may affect other subsurface organisms.
  • If there is no light, imidacloprid will break down slowly in water in which the half-life of imidacloprid is about 1 year.
  • NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oppose the use of imidacloprid on ocean environments.
  • Pesticides can drift into neighboring farms of growers who refuse to use pesticides.
  • The use of pesticides make oysters seem less “natural” or “quasi-wild.”
  • We are changing the land and sea to better our human production needs.
  • If aerial application is allowed, there might be potential spray drift from the helicopter.
  • Potential confusion in public access areas treated by imidacloprid.

We summarized the main arguments from both sides above. Shellfish growers in Willapa Bay are just as torn as some growers are for and others are not.
 

What do you think?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
 


Sources

Fact sheet for Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit No. WA0039781; October 24, 2014

Willapa Desert: Key oyster bed abandoned as inedible shrimp take over; The Daily Astorian: http://www.dailyastorian.com/Local_News/20160805/willapa-desert-key-oyster-bed-abandoned-as-inedible-shrimp-take-over

Get out of the way and let oyster growers survive; The Chinook Observer: http://www.chinookobserver.com/co/editorials/20160809/get-out-of-the-way-and-let-oyster-growers-survive

Washington State Turns to Neurotoxins to Save Its Oysters; Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-04-24/washington-state-turns-to-neurotoxins-to-save-its-oysters

Willapa Bay Oyster Farmers Ask State Again for Permission To Use Neurotoxin; KPLU: http://www.kplu.org/post/willapa-bay-oyster-farmers-ask-state-again-permission-use-neurotoxin

Can oyster farms make Puget Sound a little more wild?; Crosscut.com: http://crosscut.com/2016/06/can-oyster-farms-make-puget-sound-a-little-more-wild/

U.S. consumers across the country devour record amount of organic in 2014; Organic Trade Association: http://ota.com/news/press-releases/18061

Our 2016 Outlook For Oysters

As more consumers become acquainted with oysters, more restaurants are taking advantage of the trend. Oysters are becoming more ubiquitous than ever, and it shows no signs of stopping. These days, they’re no longer making a comeback. Instead, they’re taking center stage. So what’s next for the oyster in 2016?

MARKET TRENDS

The growing petite oyster market

Over the last three years, the demand for oysters has accelerated noticeably. This trend can be attributed to a number of reasons, but a main one is the popular use of oysters during Happy Hour. More restaurants are employing this tactic to draw customers in or drive alcohol sales. These “Dollar Oyster” deals can now be found at the local pub or even the neighborhood pizza joint.

In the past, Dollar Oyster selections were typically commodity oysters like Blue Points, Chesapeakes, or Malpeques. The cost of these oysters allow the dollar deal to be worthwhile. However, as diners become more oyster-saavy, restaurants are looking to make Happy Hour selections more exciting, thus creating a market for petite oysters.

Petite sizes cost less than their Select counterparts, so with this lower cost option, restaurants can offer premium varieties like a Cape Cod oyster during Dollar Oyster happy hours. Aside from happy hour use, this option has also created an opportunity for restaurants that are more cost-sensitive to have quality oysters on their menu. There seems to be a growing preference for smaller oysters too, which could be driven by newer oyster eaters uncomfortable with larger meats.
 

2016 IMPLICATIONS

Growers have definitely taken advantage of the petite market because it allows them to sell their oysters sooner, sometimes too soon. Depending on the farm, this could mean less Select sized product or running out of oysters before their fall peak when quality is best. It is illegal to serve petite East Coast oysters in certain states like Massachusetts, so please check your local regulations. The petite oyster market is here to stay, and we will probably see more customers shift to this lower cost option with rising freight costs and more pervasive dollar oyster deals.

The spread of oyster aquaculture to the South

PHOTO BY RUSH JAGOE FOR CNN.COM

PHOTO BY RUSH JAGOE FOR CNN.COM

With wild oysters on the decline, southern regions have looked to oyster aquaculture as an option to bring oysters back. In the Chesapeake Bay, oyster aquaculture thrived in Virginia because it was fairly straightforward to obtain a private lease. So, when Virginia’s oysters were depleted, watermen were able and open to adopting aquaculture. In Maryland, however, it was not until the last few years when leasing was finally streamlined. Since then, “[Maryland] has issued 111 oyster farming leases across 2,240 acres of waters.” This rapid growth of oyster farms has caused conflict with Maryland’s watermen, who argue farms limit the areas they can access, and with residents of waterfront homes, who find the oyster cages to be unappealing.

In the Gulf, the first oyster farm was started in 2009. Point aux Pins Oysters of Grand Bay, Alabama is now the largest Gulf off-bottom oyster operation. More watermen are now exploring aquaculture and trying to figure out how to distribute their oysters to the half-shell market, a market opposite of Gulf oyster culture where oysters are seen as commodities. The first major Gulf oyster hatchery also opened this year, which will provide more opportunities to explore aquaculture in the region.

2016 IMPLICATIONS

We will most likely begin to see more half-shell friendly oysters from the southern states. Regions with wild fisheries will transition more to oyster aquaculture despite conflicts that will need to be resolved by state regulators. Demand for southern oysters in the Northeast will remain very limited, but the south may see a shift in the commodity oyster culture in the near future.

chesapeake brand 4.png

New oysters and brands will continue to come on to the market. Marketing will be key for farms to carve out a niche position in a saturated space, and to attract loyal consumers and chefs.

SUPPLY TRENDS

East Coast supply potentially very limited in winter and spring

In 2015, we saw one of the worst winters in New England. Unfortunately, this caught a number of farms off guard. Some oyster growers had to endure significant losses while others had to deal with winter kill in the spring. These lost oysters would have been sold as markets in the fall that usually create a fall glut. There doesn't seem to be as much around as usual this time of year, which could be a sign that growers have lower inventories.

icebergs on the beaches of cape cod. Photo by Dapixara via the washington post

icebergs on the beaches of cape cod. Photo by Dapixara via the washington post

2016 IMPLICATIONS

With less to sell, growers will run out faster earlier in the year. This scarcity will become noticeable in the spring and summer when demand is outpacing supply and growers are either sold out or waiting on their seed to reach market size. Any seed lost this past winter will also affect the amount of supply in fall 2016. East Coast supply outside of New England will depend on the weather. If bad winter weather immobilizes areas like the Canadian Maritime or the Chesapeake, we will see a significant shortage again this coming winter.

More potential West Coast closures and stricter regulations

Warm water temperatures caused many area closures on the West Coast this past summer, which limited Pacific oyster supply. If areas were not closed, oysters showed signs of spawn and quality was not ideal. In British Columbia, illegal sales of shellfish caused a high reported number of shellfish illnesses. New England had a fairly quiet summer season aside from the closures in Katama and Duxbury.

2016 IMPLICATIONS

If the global warming trend continues, water temperatures will also continue to rise causing more area closures and triggering oysters to spawn earlier. West Coast supply will be limited again during the summer. Proposed protocols and regulations to test oysters might be implemented in regions like British Columbia, but the process could be cumbersome, potentially limiting product coming out of those areas. In Katama and Duxbury, new vibrio regulations are being discussed like a one-hour harvest window. Again, these rules will make it harder for growers to harvest and supply the growing demand during the busy summer months.


And that's a wrap on 2015! We hope Mother Nature is kind to us next year, but we'll just have to wait and see. Aside from all the oyster and shellfish talk, though, there's one important thing we have to acknowledge: our growing and amazing community.

Thank you for an awesome year. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without your support! Enjoy the holidays and we hope you get to ring in the new year with some oysters!
 

The Argument For Farmed Oysters

The Argument For Farmed Oysters

In today’s world, there seems to be a perception that farm-raised seafood is inferior to wild-caught seafood. Farmed oysters are a very sustainable choice and equally lovely compared to their wild counterparts. Don’t believe us? Read more for the proof.

Read More