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Deb's Writings


By Deborah M. Schneider
Published: San Diego Union Tribune, May 2002

On the surface, your common mussel seems awfully - well, common. Mussels are everywhere you look at the seashore: clusters of salt-water wallflowers, shells tightly closed, rooted in one spot for a lifetime, and apparently doing very little.

That very ordinariness makes it easy to overlook what remarkable creatures mussels really are, lurking inside that blue-black shell: hardy, prolific, successful--- and uncommonly tasty. Clearly this is no ordinary bivalve, but an efficient and opportunistic eating machine, which is both adaptable and tough - in short, the perfect survivor.

The mussel starts life as a microscopic seed, drifting through a few wild weeks of misspent youth before rooting itself to the first solid object it finds: rock, weed, rope, boat bottom or dock piling. Spinning silk-like threads called byssus, which are almost as strong as steel, the infant mussel hangs on grimly through low tides, pounding surf and blazing sun. For sheer tenacity, the mussel is unmatched, but it also represents something more than a stubborn will to live: it is a glimpse of the future of our food supply.

As a professional chef, I'm one of those people who sees the whole world in every grain of sand, and in my case every plate of food. History, climate, tradition, environmental health, air, farms and oceans are the strands that are tied up in every bite of the food we eat, whether or not we are aware of it.

A simple bowl of steamed black mussels has much to teach us. Plump and juicy, with coral-colored meat, and glossy black, pearl-lined shells, mussels are certainly both beautiful and delicious. But by their very nature, these simple animals also embody the debate over huge issues that impact our current and future food supply- issues of sustainable resources, food safety , clean water and development of the land and sea that feed us, directly and indirectly.

It is ironic that just as seafood takes center stage on menus all over the country, the world's fisheries are collapsing. As oceans and their marine populations succumb to coastal pollution and overfishing, sustainable aquaculture "farms" promise us that the sea will indeed help to sustain life in the future; analysts predict that by 2025, over half of our seafood will be farm-raised, an increase of almost 200% over today.

Farmers whose 'fields' are acres of salt water and who ride their ranges on jet skis and rubber dinghies are already defining how and what we will eat in the century to come. These farmers are growing salmon, striped bass, clams, abalone and oysters as well as mussels, harvesting their hidden crops from lagoons and off rafts, from nets and oil rig pilings, from France to South Africa, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and from Carlsbad to Baja California.

Mussels are among the oldest and most successful of aquacultured foods due to their adaptability, quick growth and extreme hardiness. First cultivated in France in the 13th century by a resourceful Englishman, so the story goes, the mussel is the original aquaculture success story.

Mussel cultivation represents aquaculture at its best, producing up to 200 times as much edible protein per acre as grazing land. Great Eastern Mussel Company in Maine harvests up to 15,000 pounds of mussels per acre. The best grazing land produces only 150 to 200 pounds of beef per acre. Mussels and other filter-feeders such as oysters and clams eat naturally occurring plankton, which they strain out of sea water, actually cleaning the water where they grow. Mussels are also naturally low in fat, high in iron and minerals, and have a third more protein than oysters.

That's a lot to wrap up in a tasty little package, but unfortunately, not all forms of aquaculture are so (relatively) benign. Some forms of aquaculture actually create pollution in previously pristine areas; others, like salmon, require that wild fish be harvested for feed, so the oceans are still being pressured. Farmed abalone, which can sell for upwards of $30.00 per pound, is sometimes fed on harvested wild kelp, disturbing a vitally important coastal ecosystem.

Mussels are successful because they offer great eating at a reasonable price to the consumer. Domestic consumption of mussels has doubled in the last five years as more and more Americans discover that mussels are inexpensive, tasty, versatile and healthy, but the mussel is vastly popular world-wide. For example Moules et Frites, wine and shallot-steamed mussels with a side of fries, are the national dish of Belgium; the French also like their mussels steamed, sometimes reducing the juices and swirling in cream, butter and drops of lemon juice to make a luscious sauce. Malaysian kapang masak asam bathes succulent mussels in the tangy flavors of tamarind, basil, lemongrass and chili peppers. Spanish baristas toss handfuls of small mussels, only a few hours out of the water, onto a hot griddle until they open and serve them with a squeeze of lemon, crusty bread and a glass of sherry or light white wine.

Of 17 known varieties of mussel, the most prominent cultivars are the so-called European mussel, mytilus edulis, and m. galloprovincialis, or Mediterranean mussel, which are virtually identical. Diners have also become familiar with the New Zealand greenshell mussel (perna viridis), which is imported fresh and live, or frozen on the half shell. Green mussels are impressively large, but seem flabby and tasteless when compared to the smaller but sweet and briny black mussel.

Our familiar local wild mussel, properly known as m. californianus, grows in the chilly pounding surf line along the rugged coast of California and Baja California. Undisturbed, our native species can grow into lunkers -- huge specimens from four to six inches in length are common, weighing in at five or six to the pound.

Even though californianus is quite edible, you should never eat wild mussels; they can harbor unseen fecal pathogens from pollution, or worse, the deadly red tide bacteria which causes nerve paralysis. It's impossible to tell an infected mussel from a clean one. Buy only farmed mussels from a reputable retailer, which have been lab-tested for cleanliness and safety.

One local grower, Carlsbad Aquafarms, is supervised by no fewer then eleven local, state and federal agencies, which ensures that the harvest is free of harmful pathogens; Carlsbad also uses a unique system, called depuration, in which sterilized and filtered water is used to purge the mussels over a 48 hour period, ensuring their wholesomeness. Carlsbad Aquafarms deserves a special look because they are pushing the possibilities of what can be done with aquaculture in terms of species, growing techniques and food safety.


Carlsbad Aquafarms operates in the shadow of the Carlsbad Power Plant's landmark 200 foot stack, which towers over the north county coastline. The "farm's" offices are unassuming: a trailer, a few outbuildings and a small floating dock and a steep boat ramp, where workers in bright yellow hip waders operate hand trucks and sorting machines. Long strings of white, barrel-shaped buoys bob in the quiet waters of the Agua Hedionda lagoon, which runs to the ocean under busy Carlsbad Boulevard. Half a mile away the I-5 freeway roars day and night, and beyond that, the hills are dotted with the homes of hundreds of thousands of North County residents.

It seems an incongruous setting for farming anything, but to John Davidson his aquafarm is a shining example of what the future could hold if coastal waters were cleaned up and coastal development limited to preserve lagoons and estuaries. His mission, as he sees it, is to promote aquaculture as an alternative to strip-mining the oceans, and in some way, to help restore the health of the coastal waters in which he has been diving, boating and fishing for decades.

"When we promote high-quality aquaculture, we're not just taking from the oceans," said Davidson. "You have to balance growing, taking and giving back. The idea is to stop taking from the ocean."

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the only signs of industry are a flat-bottomed boat with a small crane and a few simple steel machines with hoppers and grates. The real action is underwater. Strung between the buoys in the lagoon are sturdy ropes; suspended from the ropes every 18 inches are eight-foot long nylon mesh "socks ", ten thousand of them, each stuffed with thousands of young mussels. Incredibly, from this quiet scene, Carlsbad Aquafarms annually harvests three hundred thousand pounds of mussels, along with oysters, clams, and Gacilaria seaweed.

Near the boat ramp, a large tank holds dozens of short-spined purple sea urchins, a single prowling orange starfish and four bulbous horned sea hares, their delicate spotted mantles fluttering in the artificial current. This tank, and the others lined up nearby , are operated by CARI, the Carlsbad Research Institute, a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to work with desirable marine species to determine which are suited for aquacultural development. The sea hares, prized by the pharmaceutical industry, are one such species; another is the rock scallop, a sweet prize forbidden to commercial harvesters in this country. Gacilaria seaweed whirls around in a series of large open tanks; known in Hawaii as limu or ogo, this seaweed , usually harvested wild, is used extensively in Hawaii as an ingredient in Ahi Poke, a popular appetizer of raw tuna mixed with the seaweed, ginger and sesame.

In a small tank nearby lolls a pregnant (male) Australian sea horse, tail wrapped around a strand of seaweed. This species is losing its native habitat as well being captured for use in aquariums. CARI researchers are studying its commercial viability.

The way Davidson sees it, each species - from sea urchins to sea horses -- is currently being harvested from the wild for use as food, in research, or as pets in aquariums. If they could be raised in captivity, wild species could rebound and prosper. If coastal waters were free of pollution and preserved from over-use, ancient fisheries and ecosystems could begin to rebuild.

Mussels point the way to a more responsible future. They take little from the environment; feeding on what is naturally present in the water. In return mussels filter the water and leave it cleaner; each mussel efficiently filters 10 to 15 gallons of water every 24 hours, removing almost everything from it; multiply that by a hundred thousand mussels, and you can appreciate their awesome impact on lagoon water quality, which benefits everything that shares the waters.

Even the low-tech growing method has positive side effects. The long clusters of growing tubes effectively create an artificial reef, which acts as a nursery and safe haven for the juvenile stage of many plants and animals such as tiny scallops, fish, lobsters and sponges, giving shelter and protection from predators. Kneeling on the dock, Davidson pulled up one of the nylon growing tubes to demonstrate. The mussels encased in the nylon netting were small, only a couple of inches at most, but the exterior was already encrusted with small sponges and underwater plants. Inside, tiny scallops and other, less easily identifiable animals lived among the baby mussels. As we examined the growing tube, something small, and in a big hurry - probably a crab- detached itself from the sock and jumped back into the water with a loud "plop."

Each cultivated mussel begins its life as a microscopic larva, which begins to grow its cilia hairs at five days old. The larva are collected and grown in a special netting to protect them from predators, then moved into long tubes of nylon netting to grow. Several times during their life spans they are pulled up by a crane, dumped into a hopper and sorted through grates. If they fall through the grates, they are re-wrapped in a nylon tube and returned to the lagoon to continue to feed on the plankton-rich waters, and grow. Depending on water temperature and food availability, mussels mature to market size in 18 to 36 months - about three inches in length.

It's time for graduation. The mussels are peeled out of the growing tube for the last time,hosed off, shoveled into shallow black plastic trays and pulled up the hill to the purging and packing shed -- a sort of last-stop spa for bivalves.

In a small outbuilding beside the sheds, a rolling steel door ratchets up to reveal the heart of the operation - a system of seawater pumps and white PVC piping which funnel the lagoon waters through a series of filters and then through a UV irradiation system, which kills all microbes in the water. While the mussels recover from the shock of harvest, they are bathed in the filtered, sterilized seawater for 44 hours , flushing out any silt or bacteria they may accumulated during their days in the lagoon and replacing it with the purified water. This purification system, called depuration, is unique to Carlsbad Aquafarms in the world of myticulture. It virtually guarantees a product that is free of bacteria, pathogens and microbes. Afterwards the purified water returns to the lagoon, cleaner than when it came in; the mussels are packed into mesh bags, tagged with the growers name and date of harvest as required by law, packed in shaved ice and shipped all over the country.
Aquaculture in this country is highly regulated, but surprisingly, although a third of all our seafood is imported, little of it is inspected on entry. How then, will we have guarantees that the food we eat is responsibly grown or harvested, and safe to eat?

Assuring the future of our food supply from the sea will certainly challenge our many of our habits and expectations. What are, we, the consuming society, willing to give up to save a species or an environment? We know so little, yet take so much without understanding the consequences.

It's a sure bet that we will need practical solutions to many pressing questions, and we will need them very soon. It's reassuring to hope that an ancient art and an unassuming( but very successful) animal may have some of those answers- today.

Deborah M. Schneider,CEC is Executive Chef at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines


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