HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – On a gray morning, hundreds of glistening black shells tumble down a chute to the deck of a retired Navy landing craft.
Mussels are peeled off heavy ropes, sorted by size and cleaned before five crewmen, seated around a table, inspect them for cracks or holes. The biggest and best are placed in bags, a bounty of bivalves destined for sale to restaurants and fish markets.
This farm-raised mussel business 6 miles off the coast of California’s Orange County marks a new direction for aquaculture by raising seafood in open ocean rather in bays, estuaries or other pens along the shoreline.
The Catalina Sea Ranch, a 100-acre collection of ropes and buoys, bills itself as the first commercial aquaculture operation in federal waters. It could be one of many to come.
“Projects like Catalina, they are pioneers,” said Michael Rubino, director of the Office Of Aquaculture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division. “The technology is there and is rapidly expanding.”
Farmed fish, like salmon, trout and tilapia, have become commonplace. But the Catalina Sea Ranch takes a different approach.
By going offshore, the Catalina Sea Ranch aims to find cleaner water and a more stable environment with fewer water temperature fluctuations than shoreline operations would face. But it can be more expensive. And mussels, which grow quickly and live off plankton, aren’t broadly loved in America.
The project was a brainchild of Phil Cruver, a serial entrepreneur who has been involved in various ventures, with wind farms being among his most successful. He came to the idea seven years ago after being involved in an oyster bed restoration endeavor. Along the way, he made a couple of discoveries.
Easy to grow
One was that mussels, a staple at high-end French restaurants and Belgian bistros, are relatively easy to grow. They are more resistant to disease and reach maturity in about a year, half the time of more popular shellfish like oysters, clams or scallops. “Weeds of the sea,” Cruver calls them.
The other was that obtaining a permit for federal waters, from 3 miles to 200 miles, is a cinch: Fill out of a form with the Army Corps of Engineers and fork over $100. What took longer, he said, was winning the endorsement of the California Coastal Commission, which Cruver said reviewed and approved his application unanimously.
The Catalina Sea Ranch project involved finding the most marketable type of mussels, stringing thick ropes through the ocean and arranging for rigorous testing and federal seafood inspections. Cruver needed a shore facility, boats, equipment and crews needed to plant, maintain and harvest. He needed to make sure the farm didn’t interfere with shipping and other naval lanes.
The project has raised $5 million in a series of private placements and is going for another $5 million. Cruver said the farm is not yet profitable, but he expects to be in the black by the second quarter of next year.
Experts are hopeful mussel farms can play a role in meeting an increasing global appetite for sustainable seafood, which is expected to double by 2050, said Steven Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mussels can help fill the gap if more diners were willing to add them to their menus.
“They are a fantastic food,” Gaines said. Yet “most people have never tried them and are skeptical.”
One deterrent is consumers’ fears that mussels can become toxic from domoic acid and saxitoxin, either of which can lead to illness. Before any section of the farm is harvested, samples are collected and sent to a lab. On the day that USA TODAY visited the sea ranch, a NOAA seafood inspector was aboard a boat overseeing the collection of samples.
And Cruver said mussels are a hit in other countries.
When it comes to a model for success, “we’re copying New Zealand,” he said. There, mussels are a $130 million industry.
Armed with equipment and know-how, Cruver started harvesting from his sea ranch about a year ago. He plans to expand it to 3,000 acres.
The ranch itself is richly productive. Every foot of rope has 5 to 7 pounds of mussels, potentially more than a million pounds in total that can be harvested based on demand – no effort required. “They just live,” Cruver said. He’s already hauling 20,000 pounds a month on the way to the goal of 80,000 pounds a month next year.
Four days a week, the former landing craft Enterprise chugs out of Port of Los Angeles, headed to the farm. There, it either hauls back loads of fresh mussels or works on maintaining the ranch. The boat is skippered by 22-year-old Matt Grant, who supervises the operation.
Going to market
As efficient as the ship’s machines are, the process slows down when it comes to having to inspect them all. The crew carefully looks for mussels with imperfections before packing them into 5-pound mesh bags, which then go straight to boxes of ice.
“It’s pretty mundane but has to be done,” said crewman Joey Prieto.
Cruver said he’s leasing more space at the old warehouse that serves as the sea ranch’s base camp so mussels won’t have to be inspected and bagged at sea, where swells can range up to 8 feet or more.
For now, the week’s catch goes to a distributor, DiCarlo Seafood in nearby Wilmington, California, where salesman David DiCarlo, son of the founder, said he’s impressed with Catalina Sea Ranch mussels so far.
“They are just starting out, so it’s coming along,” he said. “Demand is high.”
The Catalina Sea Ranch hopes its offshore location is viewed as a huge advantage when it comes to cleaner water than would be found closer in. “We are so far from the shore, from the pollution,” said Lindsay Cruver, the operation’s research and development manager who is also Phil’s daughter.
What comes next
The sea ranch is also looking at scallops and oysters as future products, she said.
Ocean farms like the sea ranch hold the potential of not only boosting the nation’s food supply but reducing dependence on seafood imports, said NOAA’s Rubino. Another offshore farming operation is being eyed up the coast off Ventura.
“What’s changing is the realization that with nutrition and health benefits, growth in seafood is one of the best ways to go,” Rubino said.