In the North American mussel world Prince Edward Island is king.
Canada is the largest supplier of mussels to the United States and P.E.I. is the largest producer in Canada. The Island brings in about 41 million pounds every year from its bays and estuaries.
But there are upstarts south of the border looking to dethrone P.E.I. and take a bite out of the province’s domination of this lucrative industry.
“We know the following: We know that mussels are tasty and that people like to eat them. And there are not enough mussels to supply the market,” said Mark Fregeau, a professor and marine biologist at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
Fregeau, who works out of the Cat Cove Marine Lab, is involved in a movement in the U.S. to expand domestic mussel aquaculture.
They propose to do this by moving mussel aquaculture further away from the shoreline where it has traditionally taken place.
Individual states in the U.S. are largely responsible for their coastal waters up to the three-mile mark, beyond which is the responsibility of the federal government.
Until now there have been no regulations for growing mussels in U.S. federal waters, so no permits could be issued. However, driven by an expected increase in demand for seafood worldwide, aquaculture ventures on both American coasts have pushed federal regulators to build the framework needed to make it happen.
The Army Corps of Engineers, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued the first East Coast permit in October, to a shellfish farming operation about 4 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The operation is being watched closely by many in the U.S. to see how commercially viable it is, said Fregeau.
“Nothing against P.E.I. mussels, but obviously (the U.S. market) relies on one source primarily for all of (its) mussels and that source is not nearby,” he added.
“From my basic economics … you have something in demand with a limited supply of it – that kind of opens the door for the potential for increasing production. And from what I’ve read, P.E.I. is pretty much at its maximum that they can do.”
The aquaculture industry on P.E.I. has stated in the past that the province has reached its peak in terms of space available for mussel production. It has been pushing to lift a moratorium on new leases in Malpeque Bay, introduced in the 1990s, which is considered to be a last chance for expansion.
If the U.S. industry is able to bypass such space restrictions by moving further out to sea it could mean new opportunities for fishermen migrating from traditional finfish industries, said Scott Lindell, director of the aquaculture program at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a research facility in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Lindell has worked in the aquaculture industry for many years and watched the development of the federal mussel regulations closely.
He doesn’t see the U.S. being self sufficient in mussels anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to grow.
“There’s a strong locavore movement here. I don’t think there’s any sense that we’re trying to displace all the mussels that Prince Edward Island is growing. I don’t think we’ve got the capital to do that anytime soon,” said Lindell.
“But we’re on a different cycle of meatiness and spawning to the P.E.I. mussels, and it would make sense that we supply our local markets during those periods.”