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johnnyd

Mussel Farming in Maine

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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. gallery_16643_4621_33231.jpg

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 (log)

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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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 (log)

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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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 (log)

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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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Thanks for the tour, Johnnyd. Fantastic.

A question - what do the mussels eat ?


QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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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?


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Another question: Does the processing break many mussel shells?


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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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.


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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.


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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


Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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Good stuff, johnnyd. Thanks.


-- Jeff

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." -- Groucho Marx

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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?


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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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...


"Philadelphia’s premier soup dumpling blogger" - Foobooz

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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:


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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?

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 (log)

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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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.

gallery_16643_4621_15181.jpg

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.

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


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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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...

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.


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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.


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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


QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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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?


BEARS, BEETS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

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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.


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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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?


BEARS, BEETS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

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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:


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

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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