For Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, 2008 is becoming the Year of the Blue Mussel.
In recent weeks, Mr. Karney’s group has received positive news about the prospects of raising blue mussels in local waters.
While the Island group already raises juvenile bay scallops, quahaugs and oysters for participating towns on a regular basis, the organization also is participating in a blue-mussel experiment that could expand aquaculture to the open water.
Mr. Karney has learned the bivalves are growing fast and appear to be free of pea crabs, an annoying little creature that lowers the value of blue mussels going to market. Based on what he sees, Mr. Karney believes blue mussels are in the Vineyard’s future.
When it comes to that kind of forecast, he isn’t often wrong. He previously forecast a future on the Island for cultured oysters. That fishery now is growing in the inner coastal waters of Edgartown and Chilmark.
While it probably won’t be until 2010 when locally grown blue mussels go to market, Mr. Karney said this year will be important for moving the project along.
Last summer, fishermen put out experimental blue mussel stations in state waters not far from Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury. The sites are off Cedar Tree Neck, Cape Higgon and Noman’s Land.
On the surface, each station looks just like a lobster pot buoy. But instead of being connected to a lobster pot, the buoy lines are anchored and mussels are being encouraged to grow on the submerged line.
Last fall, experiment participants went back to the three stations and found the blue mussels they’d planted on ropes back in the spring were doing well.
This past week, Mr. Karney got additional information to suggest the viability of a Vineyard blue mussel fishery
Last Sunday, West Tisbury shellfish constable Tom Osmers went out and visited two of the three experimental stations. He collected 275 juvenile blue mussels to be examined for pea crabs.
Pea crabs are a tiny little crab that naturally can show up in many different blue mussels. Though they are not harmful, they do lower the value of the product in the market. These little creatures add a crunch to the taste of blue mussels.
Mr. Karney said they didn’t find pea crabs in any of the sampled mussels.
Experiment participants also have observed that blue mussels grow a lot faster in Vineyard waters than in New Hampshire’s colder waters. In New Hampshire it takes a blue mussel 18 months to get to harvestable size. In Vineyard waters the time is almost cut in half, to from eight to 12 months. That makes the value of the fishery even more attractive to growers and investors. Shellfish farmers don’t have to hold onto the shellfish for long and that offers a savings.
While the Vineyard project got initial support from University of New Hampshire aquaculture specialists, the project now is attracting interest from others.
Scott Lindell, director of scientific aquaculture programs at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, has jumped aboard. He said this week that the Vineyard project is an important step for the region when fishing is in such overall trouble.
“Eighty per cent of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from overseas,” Mr. Lindell said. “Forty per cent of the seafood from overseas is raised through aquaculture. We are really missing the boat here.
Mr. Lindell, who long has supported the shellfish group on the Vineyard, is writing an application for a federal grant seeking further funding for blue mussel projects on the Vineyard and elsewhere.
The invitation to apply for the grant came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mr. Lindell said the grant would provide funds for further study of blue mussel raising sites and establish an understanding of when and where the pea crabs show up.
The grant would cover two years. The second year would help fund three working demonstration sites that would involve the fishermen themselves. The sites could be models for future privately run sites.
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, who is retired from running a wholesale fish buying business in Vineyard Haven, is a big advocate of the blue mussel farm for the Island.
In early December, Chilmark hosted a meeting at its town hall for fishermen who might be interested in starting a farm.
“All small fishing harbors in New England need to be trying new techniques,” Mr. Doty said. “We need to try 10 new ideas. Raising blue mussels in open water is one of those ideas. I was impressed that eight commercial fishermen came out for an evening meeting to talk about this new idea.”
The fishermen made clear at the meeting that they were wary of taking on the complicated state and federal permit process alone. Mr. Doty said it was apparent that the town could ease the way by making application to the state and federal government to set aside small areas in open water where underwater mussel farms could be operated.
The selectman said the sites still would be experimental. The state has said it would view the applications favorably if the areas in question are under 25 acres.
Mr. Karney said he would hope other towns on the Island will take the same steps. That would give the Vineyard towns oversight of the experiments while also supporting local fishermen.
He said that the leasing might begin as early as 2009 for a demonstration farm, with product coming to market in 2010.