Mussels all year round

Mussels “We can also grow mussels on ropes all year round, with a down time in harvesting only in May when they spawn," Willy Versluys says

A scheme to grow mussels off the Belgian coast is in preparation with veteran Oostende trawler owner and innovator Willy Versluys.

Mr Versluys, who is closely involved with the project, brings with him his experience of a previous mussel venture.

“It’s ironic that Belgians are the world’s biggest consumers of mussels, but we don’t have any production here,” Willy Versluys said. “It’s not my project, but I’m part of it because of the experience I have in this, and it would be a waste not to use all that knowledge.”

“One of the problems is that this is a crowded part of the world and the sea off Nieuwpoort already has dredgers, wind farms, MPAs and fishing activity there, so there isn’t a great deal of space left. There are heavy tides and it’s a hostile environment.”

It is something that he has studied in detail over the years, travelling to Devon and Scotland to see how things are done elsewhere.

“I was involved in a mussel project off Nieuwpoort some years ago, but that was killed by SDVO,” he said.

He commented that the now bankrupt SDVO had been the private project’s main competition, giving away mussels in large volumes and running large promotions, before the organisation sank.

“It had been using government money that should have been used to support the fishing and aquaculture sector, but instead it set up its own business. It went to court and it was four or five years before the EU Commission ruled against SDVO. When the Belgian government then tried to recoup its funds, SDVO declared bankruptcy,” he explained, adding that his experience of the previous venture resulted in lessons learned, and the SDVO experience was also a valuable lesson in how not to do things.

“I learned that it is not possible to fight the sea,” he said, adding that the pontoons built for the previous projects never functioned properly and were too weak, so the new trial with farming mussels off the Flemish coast centres around sub-surface lines and sensors to track the tensions on them.

The plan is to place the initial lines 25 to 30 miles offshore between the windfarms where they can gather the mussel seed, before transplanting them to inshore grounds for easier access for harvesting.

“It hasn’t been easy as the windfarm operators don’t like to let anyone into their areas. Their management and insurers get very nervous, but they have accepted that we need to work together. We know there are real possibilities off the Flemish coast to farm mussels, as well as for seaweed culture.”

He said that the ropes laid offshore seed themselves as as the mussel seed is brought down the tide, so there is no need to harvest seed mussel elsewhere and bring it to the site.

“If you put your finger in the water for a while, it’ll gather mussel seed,” he said. “Although there’s more to it than just dropping a rope and an anchor in the water.”

He explained that it’s a case of getting the right systems of buoys, ropes and anchors in place, and that none of this is new technology.

“This all exists. We just need to bring the right elements together,” he said.

“There’s potential there and our French friends along the coast at Dunkerque have already been able to raise mussels successfully using rope culture, and marketing their mussels as Moules de Dunkerque. In fact, I’m selling M Turpin’s mussels here, as well as selling open sea mussels from Shetland,” he said.

The latest project involves research organisation ILVO, as well as two departments of the University of Ghent, and it has two years to come up with its findings for mussel culture, as well as the opportunities for edible seaweeds, oysters and even scallops.

“Mussels will always be a niche market, as we could never produce the huge volumes that the market here wants, but it’s something that can provide employment and it can be done in between the windfarms, and part of it is demonstrating that what we are setting out to do does not conflict with the windfarms’ activities.”

Willy Versluys commented that the mussel farming initiative complements EU ideas on blue growth and utilising the marine environment while doing no harm to it.

“There are a lot of good things about rope cultured mussels. We don’t need to feed them. There are always some starfish and crabs that feed on them, but this was not a big problem when we did this before. Rope-grown mussels are also good as shells are thinner and there is a higher meat to weigh ratio, the quality is good and they also grow faster on a rope,” he said.

“We can also grow mussels on ropes all year round, with a down time in harvesting only in May when they spawn. That’s why I buy my mussels from France and Shetland for our shop – as they have different spawning times so there is always a supply.”

The concept of transplanting the mussels to inshore areas once they are established on ropes means that they can be harvested relatively easily and quickly to meet demand, instead of harvesting mussels in volume and then seeking a buyer. Supermarket chain Colruyt is also part of the scheme, and is interested in selling Flemish mussels and developing the transport and marketing side of the venture.

The final hurdle to overcome is the seasonal image mussels have on the Belgian market, which Willy Versluys says is something invented by Dutch producers as they opened their season in July every year in the past, harvesting and selling three quarters of their annual production of bed-laid mussels in the south of Holland over a three-month period.

“We’re telling people that mussels aren’t just for the summer and you can eat them all year round, but at the moment people don’t seem to eat mussels in winter.”

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