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Mussel Farming in Maine


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#1 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 08:49 AM

As traditional commercial fisheries continue to suffer decline in stocks, shellfish aquaculture has been a welcome industry in the Gulf of Maine.

[Kennebec Journal 1/2007]
PORTLAND — Maine's mussel farming industry has been around for a quarter-century, but it's just now maturing to a point at which it can expand production and meet growing consumer demand. Well-established in other countries, mussel farming has been around in Maine for only a generation. But it is now expanding to enough sites and being marketed with sufficient effort to bring it to a new level.

Ten years ago, some of my colleagues in the sea urchin business decided to give it a whirl. Taking a cue from the grand daddy of mussel farming here in Maine, Great Eastern Mussel Farms, much toil and tribulation ensued before establishing themselves as Aqua Farms LLC a division of Ocean Approved LLC who also harvest and process kelp noodles.

Yesterday I got up at 4am and met Bernie on the waterfront for a day out on the rafts. It was a beautiful morning...
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Before heading to the Clapboard Island Raft we spun over to Bangs Island to check on the raft there. Posted Image
Those of you in the area might recognize Bangs Island Mussels on restaurant menus. This is where they come from. Unfortunately the recent "Patriot's Day Storm" caused a lot of damage. Most of the state is still recovering from this debacle where winds reached 92mph.

Edited by johnnyd, 10 May 2007 - 08:54 AM.

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#2 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 09:08 AM

The processing occurs inside this custom built house that sits on a pontoon platform. This is moored near the rafts so when Bernie and I arrive at Clapboard Islands south side, we tow it to the one (out of two) functioning rafts.
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Notice the yellow netting around the raft. This keeps the Eider ducks from diving for, and then eating, the mussels.

This is a great deal better than my trip out here four years ago. There was no shelter, it was foggy, raining and about 45F. Today might hit 80F but on the 49degree water, the conditions will be perfect.

Inside, there are a variety of stainless steel equipment that was custom-built by the guys. We'll take a look at them as we follow the journey from harvest to retail.

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Edited by johnnyd, 10 May 2007 - 09:22 AM.

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#3 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 09:16 AM

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Mussel ropes hang from the crossbeams aboard the raft. They are about forty feet long and are first covered with mussel spat and incased in a bio-degradable netting that disappears when mussels grow big enough to attach themselves to the rope. This takes about seven to nine months.
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#4 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 09:51 AM

This stainless steel rig was custom welded to handle the harvestable ropes which can weigh upward of two hundred pounds.
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The rope ends are hooked on to a winch and dragged through a gizmo that liberates the mussels (and starfish, sponges, seaweed, and other characters) from the ropes, ending up in a muddy heap on-deck.

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Last time I was here, we had to scrape the mussels off by hand - and if you've ever tried to pull mussels off rocks you know what a chore that is. Instead of a halfhour, it's done in less than five minutes.

Next, we separate the large mussel clumps into smaller mussel clumps so they can go up the conveyor and into the clump-separator...

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...which in turn sends them into the washer/spinner.

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At this point, Bernie makes sure each mussel has been separated and cleaned of the thick, fibrous connective matter they grow up around, and any other creatures, but barnacles and limpets present a more difficult problem.

Which is why this handsome unit was invented...

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"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

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#5 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 10:09 AM

The conveyor belt is washed with a blast of seawater then moved behind the mussel polisher. This magical device gently scrubs away barnacles with rows of stainless steel tubes that are "engraved", creating a "sanding" effect, loosening and removing anything on the delicate mussel shells. It was hand-built by the owners at tremendous expense but has proved to be the lynchpin of their success.

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Observe the flywheel on top - that moves the top row of scrubbers back and forth so that all sides are addressed. There is a constant wash of seawater at all times.

edited to add: The opposing directional spin of the rollers also de-beards the mussels.

Everything is compressor operated so the deck of the house can be tricky...

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Not to mention a big time mess! :raz:

Edited by johnnyd, 10 May 2007 - 10:17 AM.

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#6 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 10:16 AM

Freshly harvested mussels - debearded and polished - ready for your plate. :smile:

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#7 Blether

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 10:45 AM

Thanks for the tour, Johnnyd. Fantastic.

A question - what do the mussels eat ?

#8 docsconz

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:08 AM

Great job, Johnny! This has been an absolutely fabulous tour. Thank you. It has certainly made me hungry for mussels. Do you know where and how these specific mussels can be sourced?
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#9 docsconz

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:08 AM

Another question: Does the processing break many mussel shells?
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#10 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:11 AM

The next step in the mussel processing is packaging.

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Yet another custom-made, stainless steel item: the culling table. Small mussels have fallen through the spinner into plastic totes to be thrown back in the water, but this table has a different appeture so that medium size (1 to 2 inches) can be separated. Bernie tells me there are a range of restaurants that love the size and they actually sell for more than the large ones.

A plastic net bag is strung around the hole in the foreground and filled with ten pound (for restaurants) or two pound (consumers) product. It is weighed (blue device) and tagged with the date and license number of the harvester. A two pound sample is also bagged for the State of Maine red tide alert system, who keep a daily watch on what's going on around the coast.

Then they are placed in clean totes and iced down immediately.

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We spend a little time dragging a hook around the rafts hoping to pull up any of the two hundred ropes that were lost during the storm and recover six clean lines and one laden with super big mussels. Bernie ties that one back on a crossbeam for harvesting later.

We hose down the gear and decks, pack everything away and tow the barge back to it's mooring. As we pull away this magnificent osprey swooped in looking for snacks...
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Hard to tell here but trust me, that's an impressive creature.
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#11 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:26 AM

Thanks folks! When I got the call to go do this I asked if I could take pics and Bernie and Tollof were happy to oblige. All day I said to myself, "Oh, boy - my seafood chums at eG are gonna get a kick out of this!!" :laugh:

Blether: Mussels are filter-feeders like oysters and clams. The rope-trick keeps them suspended in open ocean where they are happy to filter through the nutrient-rich Gulf of Maine water. They will open their shells and filter the water for microscopic food.

docsconz: I estimated a breakage rate of around eight to ten percent but that could be generous. I hoped to get a shot of the actual extraction from the ropes where most of the shell-breakage occurs but I was manning the winch so no pic-ops. By mid morning we here stepping on a few strays, but the ones on deck were mostly ones I had picked off the conveyor that were already broken.

As for sourcing, I have a feeling you already have that connection... see post to come.
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#12 rlibkind

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:30 AM

I think I know what I'm having for dinner tomorrow -- even if I had them as recently as this past Sunday.
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#13 bigbear

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:33 AM

Good stuff, johnnyd. Thanks.

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#14 Chris Amirault

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:34 AM

Johnny, I hate to ask for fear of the answer, but: how much do these remarkably hard-working folks make to fill our bellies with these beauties?
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#15 philadining

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:45 AM

Fascinating thread Johnny, thanks!

Is there any downside to de-bearding them at this stage? For some reason I thought I'd heard that it was best done at the last-minute, but that might be an old-wive's tale...

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#16 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 11:57 AM

Bernie and I head into Portland harbor on a glass-like sea. We pull the boat onto a trailer and head over to Browne Trading, a specialty seafood purveyor to deliver our harvest. Browne Trading is a go-to source for high-quality seafood nation-wide... and if I recall his posts, counts our own docsconz among it's fans.

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Aqua Farms LLC has been selling their mussels to Browne for a long time so if any of you have included mussels among your orders you've already had some of these gorgeous things.

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When I got home, I cracked a beer and set about cooking off my bonus mussels, three and half pounds. In a little olive oil, I sauteed some onion, a clove of garlic, a bit of fresh oregano and thyme, 1/3 cup each of pinot grigio and chicken broth.

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They really were amazing. I am sore as hell today but it was worth it! :cool:
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#17 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 12:09 PM

Johnny, I hate to ask for fear of the answer, but: how much do these remarkably hard-working folks make to fill our bellies with these beauties?

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I asked Bernie roughly the same thing but he said on a daily basis it's relative to the demand. An awful lot of work went into the infrastructure to get to this point. Pictured above is about $100,000 worth of gear, never mind the labor to build it all themselves, and some wrong turns were inevitable.

The anti-eiderduck net alone saved hundreds of pounds from disappearing. Then there is the boat, motor and insurance for everything. The storm last month was devestating to all who make a living on the coast including Aqua Farms LLC. Maintenance takes up a lot of time and labor. Last I heard, Great Eastern offers franchises but you buy their rafts and gear, then give them a cut of the harvest.

If you take yesterday as an example, we harvested about 500 lbs and sold to Browne for about $1.50 per pound, I think, so $750 for the day minus gas @ around $40.

I got $125 and a bag of mussels for helping out. :smile:

Edited by johnnyd, 10 May 2007 - 04:28 PM.

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#18 docsconz

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 12:16 PM

Bernie and I head into Portland harbor on a glass-like sea.  We pull the boat onto a trailer and head over to Browne Trading, a specialty seafood purveyor to deliver our harvest.  Browne Trading is a go-to source for high-quality seafood nation-wide... and if I recall his posts, counts our own docsconz among it's fans.

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Aqua Farms LLC has been selling their mussels to Browne for a long time so if any of you have included mussels among your orders you've already had some of these gorgeous things.


View Post


You recall correctly. I may have to give those fine folks a call soon. :wink:
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#19 johnnyd

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Posted 10 May 2007 - 12:18 PM

Fascinating thread Johnny, thanks!

Is there any downside to de-bearding them at this stage? For some reason I thought I'd heard that it was best done at the last-minute, but that might be an old-wive's tale...

View Post

No, you are quite right here.
Their shelf life is indeed shorter. What has happened is that shipping is better so the time it takes for restaurants to get mussels is tighter, and the convenience of having perfectly clean mussels is totally worth it. No more prep cooks having to pull those damn things out is a huge bonus.
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#20 johnnyd

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Posted 14 May 2007 - 06:20 AM

Forgot to include this shot of Bernie preparing the mussel rope for the winch.

He selects and unties one rope, then passes it under the beams towards the processing deck. This can be quite tricky. The rope has 200 pounds of mussels on it so he ties the top end to the next closest beam, maneuvers himself over the next beam, then repeats the move until he gets to the winch line.

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In three years he's only fallen in once.
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#21 Blether

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Posted 14 May 2007 - 07:23 AM

Sounds like a recipe for having the beams running the other way / the processing deck on the other side :biggrin:

#22 SheenaGreena

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 05:54 AM

silly question:

a few months ago I was walking along the beach somewhere south of boston and I found lots of "clumps" of mussels that looked to still be alive. They had closed shells, and when I tapped the opened ones, they closed up. As I was saying, these mussels were in clumps, clinging to each other in little piles along the sand on the beach. I threw some in a bucket and took them home and ate them. My boyfriend was horrified and thought I was going to die, but hey I'm still alive. So, is it okay to go around picking up mussels that aren't clinging to rocks?
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#23 johnnyd

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 06:19 AM

Sure.
Besides, this is one way mussels were harvested for generations. Rock-bound mussels can be assumed less likely to subject to pollution so I'd stick to that venue for your wild mussel needs. After a while, you remember which rocks have the right sizes - around two inch for me. Those clumps you found were probably pulled off a piling or rocks by a storm.

If you get ones that are really big and crusty, you see a difference in flavor and texture. Also, I'd avoid picking ones around a busy harbor. Farmed mussels are suspended in sea water and have less stress on their maturation. Seems to improve flavor.

Another concern: I heard a story about a visitor to Peaks Island, here in Casco Bay, who picked a few pounds off the rocks and made a big dinner, then a local person said it was illegal to do that. I think he was just hasseling a tourist but I have to look into that anyway. Sounds absurd but it could actually be true.
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#24 SheenaGreena

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 06:27 AM

I think it was actually illegal for me to pick those mussels...I believe you need some sort of license or you either need to pay a fee. Yeah, I think the beach that I was walking at was a little too close to boston for comfort - meaning that the water might have been a little off. However I did see some guys raking the sand a bit of ways away and I was wondering what they were raking for? mussels? oysters? clams?
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#25 johnnyd

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 06:41 AM

Yeah, something like a non-commercial shellfish harvesting permit. Probably $15/year.

The thing about Boston harbor is that it's seen a remarkable comeback from terrible pollution - I remember a visit to the Mass. Marine Resources page and saw permissable clam harvesting pretty close to town now. There is also a good strong tide that keeps thing relatively fresh.

Were those guys raking in wet sand? Probably clams. Dry sand? money and jewelry. :biggrin:
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#26 ghostrider

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 06:42 AM

What a terrific report! This is the stuff that the Net was made for. The ingenuity of these guys is remarkable. Thanks!

Couple of questions -

Where does the packing ice come from? Do they haul it out each day or is there an ice machine on board the raft?

Are there any rivalries or territorial spats between mussel farmers like there are between lobstermen? Any quaint & amusing initiation rituals for newbies, similar to new lobster guys periodically finding their trap buoys cut & adrift for their first year or so in the biz until the locals decide grudgingly to accept their presence on the waters?

Any regulations that say where you can (& cannot) establish a mussel farm?
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#27 johnnyd

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 06:55 AM

Ice is purchased by the quarter ton from Vessel Services, a marine service and supply warehouse on Portland's waterfront, and kept in that big blue box on the boat. It keeps for days in that thing and is replenished as needed.

Are there any rivalries or territorial spats between mussel farmers like there are between lobstermen? Any quaint & amusing initiation rituals for newbies, similar to new lobster guys periodically finding their trap buoys cut & adrift for their first year or so in the biz until the locals decide grudgingly to accept their presence on the waters?

Any regulations that say where you can (& cannot) establish a mussel farm?


The aquaculture gig is still in it's infancy so those kind of things are still developing. I suppose Bernie and Tolof are in the position to start a tradition or two, eh? :biggrin:

Out of state residents have complained bitterly about the compressor noise. Aqua Farms was sued by some joker from Florida, claiming "noise pollution" but it was dismissed. Part of the suit declared the raft as "navigational hazards" but that was defeated too.

The positioning of these rafts do take a lot of consideration in that regard, but the state is very pro-aquaculture in view of the drop in traditional fishing revenues, so much effort is made to support the rafts where feasible.
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#28 johnnyd

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Posted 13 June 2007 - 08:58 AM

Mussel Seeding

For the past two days I have been back on the mussel raft helping "seed" the ropes upon which farmed mussels grow. We met around dawn at a local boat launch where a flatbed truck dropped mussels of various small sizes from five big insulated cubes. They came from AquaFarm's Blue Hill station where they are grown on smaller ropes from mussel spat.

First, we took the boat out to the Bangs Island Raft to get about forty growing ropes,

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Matt and Bernie are used to maneuvering a-top the cross beams so falling in the cold (50F) seawater is just not an option.

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The mackerel are starting to chase baitfish into Casco Bay so when the water suddenly erupts in a million little splashes the guys drop everything and cast a line or three. :cool:
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#29 johnnyd

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Posted 13 June 2007 - 09:21 AM

Mussel Seeding - part 2

The seeding machine is a compressor operated device that feeds the grow-rope, or "dropper", into a stainless steel tube at one end, where it is then surrounded by tiny mussels and wrapped in bio-degradable netting.

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Here, the hopper holds micro-mussels measuring about a quarter inch.

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Matt makes sure everything comes out okay, then hops over to the appropriate beam to tie it off. Matt has been "musseling" for a while. He has the perfect combination of smarts, reliability and being an all-around nice guy that the working waterfront in Maine holds in very high regard. Usually, one of those three things is missing. :wink:

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Notice the spool of colored cotton netting by Bernie's leg. That races around a rubber track and "seals" the first net layer, within which resides the tiny mussels and the dropper.

And into the water it goes...

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"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

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#30 johnnyd

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Posted 13 June 2007 - 09:39 AM

Mussel Seeding - part 3

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A convention of cormorants nearby tells us that there is a feeding frenzy going on somewhere in the water...

...so a break in seeding is in order to tie a mackerel jig on the line.

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The hopper now has larger mussels measuring a little over an inch. Thirty of the forty droppers were these larger ones. They will be ready to harvest in October.

My job was to help de-clump and clean the seedings before they are wrapped around the dropper, then shovel them into the hopper. I'd estimate the total at over 4000 lbs. I am one sore dude right now... :blink: but I did manage to catch four mackerel.
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