Could this Cornish beauty spot be a new dawn for UK aquaculture?

Cornish new dawn for UK aquaculture Phil watches as a rope of full of mussels is spooled on board

It’s 10pm and shellfish entrepreneur Gary Rawle should be relaxing after a day battling the wind, rain and swell, but even after dark, he is still peering through binoculars, watching over his offshore mussel farm at St Austell Bay in Cornwall, a trailblazer for sustainable shellfish farming.

With only a few buoys visible, it is difficult to believe that his site, a mile and a half out out to sea from Charlestown, is the size of 70 football pitches. It’s home to more than 300 miles of ropes, which accommodate enough mussels to produce 1.5 million portions of moules marinières every year.

Operated by Westcountry Mussels of Fowey, this is a breeding ground for hundreds of tonnes of mussels, and what is thought to be the UK’s first pilot ‘nursery,’ for lobsters. In total, more than 25,000 lobsters have been introduced into the culture site, thanks to an underwater science experiment led by registered marine conservation charity the National Lobster Hatchery (NLH), based at Padstow. Gary is also overseeing another UK first – helping the Cornish Seaweed company to trial growing plants on ropes at another one of his sites, further West at Porthallow.

He has developed his offshore sea farms at a pertinent time, as World Bank estimates predict that by 2030, 62% of the seafood we eat will need to be raised via aquaculture to tackle the supply and demand challenge.

“The St Austell Bay site has been able to steal the crown from the Scots as far as quality mussels are concerned, now the first choice of top end wholesalers and chefs alike. Our water is so warm, around 10˚ centigrade in the winter and 18˚ in the summer, the mussels just don’t stop growing. It takes us about 12 months to grow what would take 2-3 years in Scotland,” he said.

“Mussels are the Holy Grail of aquaculture – there is no need to feed them, young mussels settle naturally on the ropes, they grow quickly, and mussel farms form natural reefs, attracting other species into relatively unproductive areas.”

To further support the sustainability and viability of the shellfish industry for the future, Gary and his wife Marina have also opened up their site for use by a multitude of science and research organisations. This includes The Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Aberdeen University, the Shelleye Project, and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas).

“We’re now helping other businesses to kick start aquaculture in the South West and would love to introduce more species into our site to stay at the cutting edge of what's possible in our oceans.”

The National Lobster Hatchery (NLH) operates a network of containers for individual lobsters on Gary’s site, in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and the University of Falmouth. The project is called Lobster Grower 2 – and is funded by Innovate UK, BBSRC and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

“The charity’s priority is to deliver a new, sustainable source of lobsters for enhancing natural stocks and this is a massive step forward in that,’ explained Carly Daniels, Research and Development Manager for NLH.

“Normally the cost of land-based aquaculture programmes for lobsters is prohibitive because they need to be fed and systems need to constantly run and be tended to. However, this novel approach uses similar methods to mussel farming in that there is no need for feed inputs because the lobsters eat natural organisms that live in the water and on the rearing systems. We have already deployed over 25,000 juvenile lobsters from the NLH to the site, and we have six lines in the sea – there are tens of thousands more creatures down there. The NLH as a stock enhancement charity also has a massive opportunity to release thousands of these environmentally enriched, on grown lobsters into the wild at the end of the project.”

But perhaps most importantly, from a customer’s perspective, the ‘at sea’ aquaculture method has also created a ‘pedigree’ mussel. Water quality is much higher at the St Austell Bay site than in estuaries, which fluctuate wildly with every passing storm.

“The meats from mussels grown in the sea are huge, and the shells are thinner, which means customers get a plate of plump meats instead of thick, heavy shells,” Gary said. “For chefs, that means less time spent cleaning, as all our mussels are sold chef ready; we do the hard work cleaning them and leave the chefs to do what they do best.”

As the UK prepares to leave the EU,he feels it is critical that the UK maintains a sustainable approach to fishing.

“Aquaculture has an important part to play in feeding the nation but it’s equally important we don’t all just jump on the band wagon and do the same thing in bigger and bigger farms. All that would achieve would be to cause a boom and bust economy as prices fall. What we need is people with fresh ideas, who are willing to take a chance and be leaders, not followers, in terms of introducing new species. We are proud to have grown our business organically, as it has enabled us to make the mussels the best they possibly can be. I believe it is better to have ten artisan farmers, all growing because they are producing really high-quality produce, rather than trying to make a quick buck,” he said and added that in the early days, their business received £10,000 of EU support.

“More than Marina and I were making from the business a year at the time. We are really grateful for it, as it turned out to be the catalyst for something special. At the time I couldn’t see what was in it for the EU, or how were they going to get their pound of flesh back. But fast forward twenty years, and we now spend hundreds of thousands of pounds wherever possible in the local economy.”

But it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the couple. The bane of their lives is algal blooms and ironically, it’s the very clarity of the waters around the Cornish coast that allows the sun to shine through and sustain the blooms. A large outbreak can stop mussel harvesting for weeks – during which time Gary still has to pay his team of ten full-time staff. He works in partnership with Environmental Health to carry out regular monitoring of the site until it’s given the all clear. He also supports Shelleye – a project to develop a warning system for incidents which allow farmers to react quicker before blooms hit. But Gary actually has a love-hate relationship with the phenomenon, since algal blooms generate 60% oxygen in the planet and are the starting blocks for all ocean life.

His team has turned challenge into opportunity. Due to this joint working, Westcountry Mussels of Fowey is the first food business in Cornwall to have achieved an ‘approved 12-hour reduced purification process’ from Environmental Health, due to the high confidence the authority has in Gary’s food safety management systems and proven high-quality waters.

Too warm for salmon and trout

He started his career working on a salmon and trout farm, which closed when the water became too warm for the operation to be viable.

Gary and Marina set up their first mussel farm in the Fowey river in the late 1990’s, but fluctuating water quality and restrictions on expansion prompted them to seek a site elsewhere. The couple expanded onto a site at Truro Harbour and realised that ropes attracted higher quality mussels than those found in beds. They carefully researched the Scottish industry and fine-tuned their mussel growing technique before deciding to move offshore to their current site.

“To start the mussel farm, we knew we had to be at the right place at the right time. Every mussel releases about 30 million baby mussels into the ocean – and it usually only happens a couple of times a year. Of those, only 1% will find something to attach to and grow on in a safe place. We needed to create a safe habitat away from predators on the bottom. We did this by hanging ropes 10 metres long suspended from the surface in 20 metres of water, so they would never touch,” he explained.

“We then collected as many as we could of the mussels left floating around the bay and encouraged them to the site.”

Their St Austell Bay site is owned by Crown Estates, and when Gary first applied for permission he received scores of objections – some of which bordered on being far-fetched.

“People overlooking the bay thought there would be plastic sheeting everywhere. One man even objected because he thought the farm might deter sailors from tacking, should a trans international yacht race ever come to Cornwall,” Gary recalled.  “However, when we applied to extend our site recently, we did not receive a single objection. It just shows that aquaculture can live alongside more traditional fisheries if it’s done right.”

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