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MBL Launches Offshore Mussel Farm

by the Fish Site Editor
14 December 2009, at 12:00am

US - Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) researchers, fishermen and the aquaculture industry are working together to test the waters in southern New England for blue mussel farming.

According to Cape Cod Today, four experimental farms were recently established in open waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island as part of a pilot project aimed at laying the groundwork for a competitive fishery in the region and providing fishermen and working waterfronts with an alternative source of income.

This autumn, offshore mussel farms were established in Vineyard Sound in Massachusetts, and in Narragansett Bay and the waters off Newport and Block Island in Rhode Island. Fishermen are participating in the project along with a shellfish processor who is contributing mussel seed. The project is supported by a $214,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the MBL.

“Historically, mussels are not a reliable fishery in Southern New England or most places,” says project coordinator Scott Lindell, Director of the MBL’s Scientific Aquaculture Programme. “They are typically wiped out by overfishing, or starfish predation, and that is why there are few wild harvested mussel beds.” But mussels have a relatively quick grow-out period, reaching harvestable size within 10 months, as opposed to oysters and clams, which require two and three years, respectively.

To help combat the predation problem, the pilot study uses an innovative open-ocean system first tested by researchers at the University of New Hampshire. Anchored in 100 feet of water and suspended 30 feet below the surface, 500-foot buoyant longlines hold hundreds of biodegradable ‘socks’ filled with mussel seed. There are several advantages to farming in offshore waters, Mr Lindell told Cape Cod Today. “The high currents supply ample food to promote fast growing mussels,” he says. The new technique also helps to control predation by starfish and avoid infestation by pea crabs, a parasite that appears to impact mussels in calmer near-shore waters.

The project is also providing a welcome source of alternative income for lobstermen, scallopers and oyster farmers who are contributing the use of their boats and labour for maintaining the gear.

Mr Lindell’s hope is that project will lead to a few dozen Southern New England fishermen tending longlines to supply the region with native shellfish. Each longline has the potential to produce 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of mussels per year.

“The potential exists to create a multi-million dollar sustainable industry involving local fishermen, existing shore-side infrastructure, and an underutilised natural resource,” adds Bill Silkes, president of American Mussel Harvesters, an industry partner who is contributing mussel seed for the project.

Mr Lindell and his colleagues are looking forward to the spring when the first group of mussels will be harvested. They are currently exploring funding to develop best management practices that will help streamline permitting for new offshore mussel farms and make their management more profitable.

the Fish Site Editor