Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Checking in with aquatic farmers

Laura Butler
Washington State Aquaculture Coordinator

Tim Jones talks about his mussel farm in front of the
Washington Grown cameras. 
Where the road winds along the bluff above a tiny cove tucked into the leeward side of Whidbey Island, you’ll spot the rafts, about 40 of them, floating in orderly rows on the crystalline water. From here they appear nondescript, gray three-panel docks evenly punctuating the mirror blue expanse.

But on the 40-foot lines hanging just below the surface you’ll find some of the richest mussel production in the country, the anchor crop at one of the Northwest’s most iconic seafood companies, Penn Cove Shellfish.

Mussel rafts in Penn Cove near
Established in 1975, Penn Cove Mussels is the oldest and largest mussel farm in the United States. Their mussels have won top honors at international taste-test competitions for their sweet flavor and fabulous texture.

Listening to growers

We pulled into the parking lot outside the warehouse and were soon greeted by farm operations manager Tim Jones. This week we’re in north Puget Sound to check in with growers, talk about the issues they may be concerned about and, here at Penn Cove, we’re taking a guided tour of the operation as part of shellfish episode we’re filming with Washington Grown.

My role as the state’s aquaculture coordinator involves travel around the state’s coastal waters to connect with the folks who farm our state’s tidelands and aquatic farms to see how the issues associated with aquaculture are affecting the public.

The state aquaculture coordinator position, and the multifaceted roles and responsibilities that come with it, is a natural fit for WSDA.

What does the state aquaculture coordinator do?

To me it’s obvious.

Aquatic tractor? A Penn Cove Mussel worker taxis between
There’s no question that shellfish farmers are farmers. They buy seed, plant seed, and tend their
crops. Then they harvest the product and market it domestically and internationally. WSDA works with industries that do that on land, and this is no different.

It’s farming in a unique environment of a marine ecosystem. But because of the many concerns associated with that ecosystem, several local, state and federal agencies regulate activities that take place in it. One of my roles, and the role of WSDA, is to advocate for these producers, help them navigate the complex regulatory system, and promote their product.

In addition, these farmers and the public rely on clean water, verifiably sanitary handling processes, market access, and promotion -- all areas where this office can provide resources and support.

For the public, the value comes in protecting one of the crown jewels of our state’s history and economy. Commercial shellfish harvesting has been going on since the mid 1800s, and the region’s indigenous people have relied on shellfish for thousands of years. The industry provides critical jobs in the rural communities along the coast.

Mussels are processed fresh, right out
 on the water.
Back at the Penn Cove warehouse, Jones outfits our crew with life vests before we head down to a skiff that will taxi us out to the mussel rafts for the tour. As his truck bounces down to the beach, he talks about why Penn Cove uses a raft system and one his biggest predator pests. And no, it’s not an orca or a harbor seal.

“Ducks are our big predator,” he said. “Surf scooter ducks.”

“You know who Daffy Duck is?” he asked, revealing traces of his Maine accent. “Daffy Duck is a surf scooter. We’ll get big flocks of birds, 2,000 or more, in the winter months and they love eat’n mussels. There was no way we could protect the mussels from the ducks with a long-line system, so we went to a raft system so that we can put nets around the rafts to keep the ducks from getting in there.”

In spring, the cords below the rafts are
coiled to catch the mussel seed near
the water's surface. 
Out on the water, Jones steps off the skiff onto the raft. Thousands of lines hang into the clear water. Right now the lines are coiled to catch the mussel seed near the surface. But 14 months from now each line will be weighed down with as much as 50 pounds of mussels. With about 2,000 lines on each of the 42 rafts, “I’ll let you do the math,” Jones said with a smile.

Thousands of lines hang below the rafts.
Each cord can produce up to 50 pounds
 of mussels. 
Penn Cove never feeds or fertilizes their shellfish; they just give them an ideal place to grow and thrive. Clean water and abundant algae are the key ingredients. Although mussels require clean water, they also return the favor. Each mussel filters 18 gallons of water a day. That’s how mussel farming provides enhanced habitat and ecosystems, and adds to the overall health of the marine environment.

As the state aquaculture coordinator, I’m dedicated to working with farmers like Tim Jones to make sure the aquaculture industry will continue to prosper as a center part of Washington’s heritage and economy.

Laura Butler prepares for a Washington Grown interview
on the wharf in Coupeville. 
I hope to see you out on one of our many tidelands in the future. Please do not hesitate to contact me by e-mail or at 360-902-1842 if you need assistance with your operation or have questions about aquaculture in Washington.

And if you’d like to see more about mussels and other aquaculture, tune into Washington Grown at the beginning of next year and watch the episode we took part in.