This Innovative Method Could Change the Future of Shellfish Farming

A new California venture is taking aquaculture out into open water.

(Photo: Vlad Fishman/Getty Images)

Nov 12, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Never mind that when the weather turns chilly, sometimes there’s just nothing better than a steaming, heaping bowlful of the classic French dish moules frites. No matter how delicious that pile of shiny black-shelled bivalves can be, no one is ever going to turn to you and say, “Darling, the world is your mussel.”

They may not have the romantic connotations of oysters, but mussels need not be dismissed as second shellfish.

Phil Cruver, CEO of Catalina Sea Ranch.
(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

 

Order mussels in a restaurant, and they’re a fraction of the cost of a plate of raw oysters. Pregnant and on the lookout for those coveted long-chain omega-3 fatty acids? Mussels are a surprisingly good source. While they can’t filter as much water per day as their more glamorous counterpart, they grow more densely, meaning there can be umpteen more of them doing their thing to keep important waterways clean.

But unlike oysters, which are farmed up and down both coasts, there’s little in the way of domestic mussel production.

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Southern California–based Phil Cruver, CEO of Catalina Sea Ranch, knows all that, which explains why he’s intently focused on farming California’s Mediterranean mussels, an introduced species flourishing along the state’s coastline. “It’s the weed of the sea,” he says. The ranch is set to become the first commercial offshore aquaculture farm in the nation.

The operation is in the early phases. Cruver speaks about the ranch as if he’s still recruiting investors, tossing out consumption statistics, pending patent applications, and how he intends to supplant mussel imports from Canada. But details on where the company will locate its mussel hatchery and lab space are still being worked out.

On a recent visit, we tour the hulking 46-year-old Captain Jack, a 111-ton former shrimp trawler docked just outside the Southern California Marine Institute facility in the Port of Long Beach, Cruver’s current home base. We also get a first-hand peek at the $1 million, 16,000 pound NOMAD buoy provided by NOAA that Cruver says will eventually be anchored in the middle of the 100-acre ranch.

Cruver leaps from Captain Jack’s deck with ease and pulls a dripping strand of mussles from the dock’s corner for us to see. These are just for show. Cruver intends to farm mussels farther out to sea than anyone in the U.S. has ever done. He’s confident he can grow them and eventually expand to include the more lucrative native purple-hinge rock scallop as well as sea cucumbers for the Asian market, all without taking up precious coastline, bay, or estuary space where aquaculture ventures typically set up operations.

We’ll find out soon if he’s right. In the next few weeks, Cruver and his staff will begin planting 600-foot strands of mussels six miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Until now, all farmed seafood in the U.S. is raised on or close to land. Catalina Sea Ranch will take its farm into federal waters, beyond the three-mile mark usually regulated by the states.

Michael Rubino, director of aquaculture for NOAA, says going offshore is the new frontier, and it’s the next logical step.

Lines of mussels at a farm in Isle of Skye, Scotland. (Photo: Louise Murray/Getty Images)

“We have crowded coastlines. It’s hard to find places for new development. There are conflicting coastal use issues. The permit process can get involved and convoluted,” Rubino said.

But taking a farm offshore doesn’t eliminate all the challenges; it just swaps them out for new ones.

“As you go farther offshore, you have other issues—things like greater water depth, greater wave energy, more time spent getting back and forth,” says Rubino.

Those challenges haven’t deterred Cruver. If all goes as planned, Catalina Sea Ranch will produce 2.5 million pounds of mussels each year, putting a tiny dent in our nation’s whopping $10 billion seafood deficit. Currently, we import 90 percent of the seafood we consume.

When it comes to live farmed mussels—the product Cruver will be cultivating—the U.S. imported over 32.5 million pounds (close to $40 million worth) in 2013, the vast majority of it from Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

“There’s no reason we can’t grow our own,” says Cruver. “We have a lot of locavores here in California.”

Cruver points to the success of aquaculture pioneer Bernard Friedman, who has been growing mussels in open ocean water one mile from shore in Santa Barbara. While it’s not exactly the same as going six miles out to sea, there are many similarities. Cruver also points to the offshore oil rig platforms that sit eight to 10 miles from the beach.

Underwater mussel farm design by Catalina Sea Ranch. (Photo: Courtesy CatalinaSeaRanch.com)

“They have to scrape the mussels off the legs of those platforms. They can get five-feet thick and jeopardize the structure,” says Cruver.

Catalina Sea Ranch isn’t the only seafood venture wading into deeper water. A proposed East Coast offshore mussel farm just got the nod to go ahead in Nantucket Sound, and permit applications have recently been submitted for the first offshore finfish farm, near San Diego.

He’s also coming at the venture as an outsider who spent much of his career as an entrepreneur in the software industry. In April 2013, he sold his venture capital–funded software company, KZO Innovations, for $12 million. The spry 69-year-old lights up when he talks about the eight provisional patents he’s already filed with the U.S. Patent Office.

His background in technology means he’s eager to apply emerging precision farming techniques to his own aquaculture operation. Underwater drones will be used to monitor the 100 acres of mussel strands, and Cruver is working with Verizon to transmit real-time information on water temperature, salinity, turbidity, and other scientific data.

Technology is being used in the breeding program as well. Cruver and his hatchery manager, Kelly Stromberg, are working with researchers to produce a high-performing mussel. Stromberg says the idea is to run the genetic code on a variety of mussel families identifying desirable traits and produce broodstock that reflects those. For example, “mussel family A” might be fast growers, while “mussel family B” produces meat higher in omega-3s.

“We’ll be able to identify the genetic markers in that sequence to know what markers go with better shell growth, which ones have higher omega-3s, this one has a better meat-to-shell ratio. Then we can dump a reagent that kills off all the mussels that don’t have these genetic markers or pinpoints that we like,” says Stromberg, emphasizing the work should not be confused with genetic engineering or GMO, where traits from other organisms are inserted into the mussels.

Cruver also has patents pending on bivalve cryobanking, which would provide Catalina Sea Ranch with a steady flow of mussels that naturally only spawn two to three times a year.

“Instead of being a mussel rancher, we’re really a technology company,” says Cruver. “We’re outliers. People say, ‘Who’s Cruver? He’s not a shellfish guy. He’s not even a seafood guy.’ That’s partly why we’ve been successful so far. Perception has changed over the last few years—there’s more momentum now.”