This farm could help meet rising seafood demand
Sea-grown mussels find a place on dinner table
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.
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.
Crew members work to harvest mussels on the deck of the Enterprise, a retired Navy landing craft, off the California coast.