By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
The seafood consumer loves to eat blue mussels. It’s an internationally consumed product that lends itself very well to modern day aquaculture, including most likely here in Vineyard waters. Last Wednesday, a top mussel grower from Iceland, Vidir Bjornsson, of Nordurskel, came to speak and share pictures of his young blue mussel farm at the Chilmark Public Library. His one-hour talk was devoted to sharing his success, his struggles and his technique.
With an experimental farm already operating in Vineyard Sound, started by Alec Gale with federal funding, the interested fishermen were looking for good, sound advice.
Mr. Bjornsson said he started his farm business in 1999 after spending a lot of time on the water, working as a commercial fisherman.
His technique involves farming blue mussels from long, vertical lines, suspended deep in the water column, in the open ocean. With a crew of nine year-round employees that grows to 15 to 16 employees in the summer, his business involves putting out juvenile blue mussels on the lines and coming back as long as two-and-a-half or three years later to harvest the result.
There is a growing interest on the Vineyard about raising blue mussels, for it gives commercial fishermen another opportunity to diversify their livelihood. There is a huge market opportunity and the conditions in the water here are right.
Mr. Bjornsson’s talk was sponsored by the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund and the Friends of the Chilmark Public Library, as part of an ongoing series of talks to help jump-start initiatives to raise and harvest local seafood. The late afternoon program gave an opportunity for fishermen, together with mussel farm advocates, to meet and share, an informal forum for people who see this kind of future in Vineyard waters.
In the audience there was Rick Karney, the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group; Scott Lindell, a marine resources manager and director of Scientific Aquaculture Program, for the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole; Bill Silkes, president of American Mussel Harvesters, of North Kingston, R.I.; and Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman, president of the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund and president of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association.
Mr. Bjornsson spoke in limited English of growing his business by learning from mistakes. “We don’t want to make the same mistakes over again,” he said.
Mr. Bjornsson said each spring he goes out on the water and with a microscope evaluates the seasonal start of the mussel growing season. Sometime in May, over a span of two weeks, the mussels will spawn larva. He said he likes to coordinate that moment with the time to place new lines in the water. The hope is to offer the small creatures a place to cling to; he takes small, juvenile blue mussels and attaches them to the lines, held fast by what they call in the industry a “sock.” The temporary fabric holds the animals close to the line, where they will cling.
The lines of mussels are suspended at least 15 feet below the surface. All the vertical lines hang from a single horizontal line. The horizontal line is kept high in the water column by underwater floating buoys. The whole system is anchored to the bottom by large boulders.
The predator that can decimate a blue mussel farm, Mr. Bjornsson said, is the sea eider duck. These birds can swim deep below the surface and harvest considerable food.
“On the first day, you may see one eider. The next day you’ll see ten. The third day you’ll see a hundred,” Mr. Bjornsson said. The secret to keeping the eider away is to keep the lines well below the surface and also to minimize the buoys on the surface. If eiders can’t see evidence of the farm, they won’t know where to dive.
Other challenges, Mr. Bjornsson said, include keeping the farm safe even when there are 20-foot waves. He also said that while the growing rates are high in the summer, there is very little growth in the winter.
Mr. Bjornsson said most of his product is consumed in Iceland, though he did try for a time to ship the blue mussels to interested markets in Europe. The biggest challenge for shipping was travel time. Blue mussels can survive being out of the water for at least a week. But if it takes three days to get the shellfish to consumers, that cuts in half the time the animal is available to consumers.
After the talk, the fishermen hung around to share their ideas. Greg Mayhew, a commercial fisherman working out of Menemsha, said he was impressed by the technique. He said he thought the fishery viable, something in which his son would take an interest.
Mr. Doty said that if they can raise blue mussels in Iceland, they can certainly raise them here.
Mr. Lindell said he was encouraged by the fishermen’s interest. “There is continuing interest to diversify the way fishermen make a living. It is clear there won’t be any fishery that will sustain the fishermen now. It is important that acquaculture be in the mix. It is silly to think that we [on the Vineyard] continue to import 90 per cent of the mussels that we consume in our fine restaurants. Mussels are the most cost-effective fishery. They are good for the environment and may help in the cleaning of our local waters.”
Later in October, work will begin on a two-year project funded by a $199,000 grant, to take the local blue mussel farm forward another step for both Rhode Island and in local waters. The USDA, through the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center, has funded the Marine Biological Laboratory-administered project. Mr. Lindell, a key coordinator for the project, said the intent is to do science and maximize the production technique for the farm.
This talk, given at the library, helps move the Chilmark project along.
Mr. Karney said: “I liked the talk. It gave a real individual industry perspective of how the business started and all the issues he had to deal with. This is a good program for the potential mussel growers.”