This farm could help meet ris­ing seafood de­mand

Sea-grown mus­sels find a place on din­ner ta­ble

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Chris Wood­yard

HUNT­ING­TON BEACH, Calif. – On a gray morn­ing, hun­dreds of glis­ten­ing black shells tum­ble down a chute to the deck of a re­tired Navy land­ing craft.

Mus­sels are peeled off heavy ropes, sorted by size and cleaned be­fore five crew­men, seated around a ta­ble, in­spect them for cracks or holes. The big­gest and best are placed in bags, a bounty of bi­valves des­tined for sale to restau­rants and fish mar­kets.

This farm-raised mus­sel busi­ness 6 miles off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia’s Or­ange County marks a new di­rec­tion for aqua­cul­ture by rais­ing seafood in open ocean rather in bays, es­tu­ar­ies or other pens along the shore­line.

The Catalina Sea Ranch, a 100-acre col­lec­tion of ropes and buoys, bills it­self as the first com­mer­cial aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tion in fed­eral wa­ters. It could be one of many to come.

“Projects like Catalina, they are pi­o­neers,” said Michael Ru­bino, di­rec­tor of the Of­fice Of Aqua­cul­ture at the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad- min­is­tra­tion’s Fisheries divi­sion. “The tech­nol­ogy is there and is rapidly ex­pand­ing.”

Farmed fish, like sal­mon, trout and tilapia, have be­come com­mon­place. But the Catalina Sea Ranch takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

By go­ing off­shore, the Catalina Sea Ranch aims to find cleaner wa­ter and a more sta­ble en­vi­ron­ment with fewer wa­ter tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions than shore­line oper­a­tions would face. But it can be more ex­pen­sive. And mus­sels, which grow quickly and live off plank­ton, aren’t broadly loved in Amer­ica.

The pro­ject was a brain­child of Phil Cru­ver, a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur in­volved in var­i­ous ven­tures, with wind farms be­ing among his most suc­cess­ful. He came to the idea seven years ago af­ter be­ing in­volved in an oys­ter bed restora­tion en­deavor. Along the way, he made a cou­ple of dis­cov­er­ies.

One was that mus­sels, a sta­ple at high-end French restau­rants and Bel­gian bistros, are rel­a­tively easy to grow. They are more re­sis­tant to dis­ease and reach ma­tu­rity in about a year, half the time of more pop­u­lar shell­fish like oys­ters, clams or scal­lops. “Weeds of the sea,” Cru­ver calls them.

The other was that ob­tain­ing a per­mit for fed­eral wa­ters, from 3 miles to 200 miles, is a cinch: Fill out of a form with the Army Corps of En­gi­neers and fork over $100. He said the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Com­mis­sion also re­viewed and ap­proved his ap­pli­ca­tion.

The Catalina Sea Ranch pro­ject in­volved find­ing the most mar­ketable type of mus­sels, string­ing thick ropes through the ocean and ar­rang­ing for rig­or­ous test­ing and fed­eral seafood in­spec­tions. Cru­ver needed a shore fa­cil­ity, boats, equip­ment and crews needed to plant, main­tain and har­vest. He needed to make sure the farm didn’t in­ter­fere with ship­ping and other naval lanes.

The pro­ject has raised $5 mil­lion in a se­ries of pri­vate place­ments and is go­ing for an­other $5 mil­lion. Cru­ver said the farm is not yet prof­itable, but he ex­pects to be in the black by the sec­ond quar­ter of next year.

Ex­perts are hope­ful mus­sel farms can play a role in meet­ing an in­creas­ing global ap­petite for sus­tain­able seafood, which is ex­pected to dou­ble by 2050, said Steven Gaines, dean of the Bren School of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and Man­age­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. Mus­sels can help fill the gap if more din­ers were will­ing to add them to their menus.

“They are a fan­tas­tic food,” Gaines said. Yet “most peo­ple have never tried them and are skep­ti­cal.”

One de­ter­rent is con­sumers’ fears that mus­sels can be­come toxic from do­moic acid and sax­i­toxin, which can lead to ill­ness. Be­fore any sec­tion of the farm is har­vested, sam­ples are col­lected and sent to a lab. On the day that USA TO­DAY vis­ited the sea ranch, a NOAA seafood in­spec­tor was aboard a boat over­see­ing the col­lec­tion of sam­ples.

And Cru­ver said mus­sels are a hit in other coun­tries. When it comes to a model for suc­cess, “we’re copy­ing New Zealand,” he said. There, mus­sels are a $130 mil­lion in­dus­try.

Armed with equip­ment and knowhow, Cru­ver started har­vest­ing from his sea ranch about a year ago. He plans to ex­pand it to 3,000 acres.

Ocean farms like the sea ranch hold the po­ten­tial of not only boost­ing the na­tion’s food sup­ply but re­duc­ing de­pen­dence on seafood im­ports, said NOAA’s Ru­bino. An­other off­shore farm­ing op­er­a­tion is be­ing eyed up the coast off Ven­tura.

PHO­TOS BY SANDY HOOPER/USA TO­DAY

From a boat deck, Matt Grant har­vests mus­sels that were grown in open sea rather than in bays or es­tu­ar­ies near shore.

The mus­sels are sorted while still on the boat. Crew mem­bers look for de­fects such as cracks and holes in the mus­sels be­fore pack­ag­ing.

CHRIS WOOD­YARD/USA TO­DAY

Crew mem­bers work to har­vest mus­sels on the deck of the En­ter­prise, a re­tired Navy land­ing craft, off the Cal­i­for­nia coast.

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