Mussel Men

A growing aquaculture operation thrives in Casco Bay’s clean, clear waters

For years, Matthew Moretti would tell people he worked as a “professional shoveler.” Before his family business upgraded its equipment two years ago, Matthew explains, wielding a shovel was integral to the mussel farming process. “The original way we harvested at the barge was that we would haul the lines up over the side, and we had this way of stripping them that was very primitive,” he says. “For the first six years of the company, we would knock the mussels off by whacking the lines with a shovel. The mussels would pound down onto the deck, making a huge mess, mud flying everywhere.”

Much has changed since 2010, when Matthew and his father, Gary Moretti, purchased Bangs Island Mussels. The father-and-son duo wanted to invest in sustainable aquaculture, and although the company was “tiny” when they bought it (“it was just three rafts, me, and one employee, Colleen,” Matthew recalls), it’s grown substantially in the past eight years. While the Morettis kept the brand name (Bangs Island) for their mussels, they created a new company called 
Wild Ocean Aquaculture. When they
 first started their self-funded operation,
 the Morettis were producing less than
30,000 pounds of mussels per year. They
 had a skiff, a barge, and some rafts, but no 
wharf space, so each day they would haul
the boat in and out of the water. Now the 
company has ten rafts and ten employees 
and harvested about 260,000 pounds of 
mussels in 2018. They’ve also automated much of the process. While they used
 to sort and process the mussels by hand,
 now they use a declumping machine to
separate out the delicate creatures. Mat
thew no longer shovels all day long—he’s
 spending a lot more time in his office on Portland’s Maine Wharf—but he looks back fondly on those hard, early days of the business. “It was tough,” he says. “But it has been rewarding.”

Although the company is known best for its meaty mussels, which have been praised on the pages of the New York Times, Outside magazine, and the Boston Globe, Wild Ocean Aquaculture also farms kelo for human consumption and has begun to expand into farming sea scallops, although those wont be ready for sale for some time. “Scallops are still a guess,” Gary admits. “We don’t know if it will be viable. It requires a lot of labor. We’re not betting the farm on scallops, but we’re slowly investigating it.”

Matthew and Gary have similar speaking styles, but where Matthew is careful and a bit reticent, Gary is loquacious and peppers his conversations with similies and metaphors. To help me, a landlubber, understand the bivalve and kelp business, Gary likens their company to a farm, because it is a farm, even though they are growing underwater rather than in the dirt and their crops grow on ropes rather than inside greenhouses. Gary points out that the investment in growing scallops is a bit like starting a Christmas tree farm, although there’s an added element of uncertainty because there isn’t a long history of scallop farming in America. It’s a fairly new process, and Wild Ocean wants to be on the vanguard of the movement.

Matthew and Gary are using a method developed in Japan that involves drilling tiny holes in the “ear” of the scallop shell (the rectangular tab located by the hinge) to attach the scallops to ropes that hang from long lines running across the surface of the ocean. This work has been funded in part by Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Brunswick. With the help of a $300,000 research grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, Coastal Enterprises purchased three scallop aquaculture machines to test these new-to-America farming techniques. Wild Ocean Aquaculture is now employing the most Japanese scallop-farming equipment ever used by a U.S. scallop farm. “It’s one of the first serious attempts to farm Atlantic sea scallops in the United States,” noted Patrick Whittle, reporting on the project for the Associated Press in August 2018. “Farming scallops in the cold waters of Maine is no small feat.”

But Gary and Matthew want to try, not only because it will diversify their offerings (and thus their potential for earnings) but also because it could be good for Maine’s future economic growth. University of Maine professor Brian Beal explains that aquaculture is a demonstrated “job-creating mechanism.” According to data collected by the Department of Marine Resources, over 75 percent of the value generated by Maine’s seafood industry in 2017 came from lobster. (Herring came next at just 3.2 percent, followed by clams, elvers, scallops, and worms.) “That’s pretty dangerous,” says Beal, who is also director of research at Downeast Institute in Washington County. “That means we essentially have a monoculture.” He points out that there are more lobsters off the coast of Maine now than any other time since the start of commercial fishing in the late 1800s. “As an ecologist and a biologist, when I look at the pie chart for commercial fisheries in Maine, I’m quite concerned. I don’t think what we have is sustainable.”

If Maine’s ocean-based industries were to diversify—say, by farming more mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops—the state might have more control over its economic destiny. While we don’t know exactly what climate change will do to Maine’s lobster fishing, it is likely that as the oceans warm the lobsters will begin moving north to New Brunswick. And the changes are coming fast. Over the past 15 years, this region has been heating up over seven times faster than the rest of the ocean. This news is alarming, for Maine’s environment and also for our seafood industry. Mussels, unlike lobsters, can thrive in the waters off the New Jersey coast, which is “substantially warmer, as we all know, than Maine,” says Beal. While many of the mussels consumed in Maine are harvested from the wild, there’s a real potential for aquaculture companies such as Wild Ocean to take root offshore.

Both Matthew and Gary avoid talking about hot-button topics like global warming and politics, but they do espouse environmentalist beliefs. Sustainability is the “core mission” of Wild Ocean. “Recently, we’ve been working with the Island Institute and Bigelow Labs to better understand the climate-change-mitigating effects of kelp farming,” says Matthew. Soon after they purchased the company, Matthew and Gary began experimenting with growing kelp alongside their mussels. They chose this sea vegetable for several reasons. First, they believed it could be an expanding market. As Portland’s local food scene expands, it only makes sense that more people (or at least, more chefs) will begin experimenting with “the only winter-grown produce that thrives in Maine,” as Gary calls it. “Year after year, we put kelp in,” he says. “We’ve never made a profit off of it. But we know it’s the right thing to do.” Kelp cleans the water by extracting elements that can be harmful in coastal ecosystems, particularly if they are present in excessive amounts, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Mussels, too, work to clean the water. Just as houseplants help clean your bedroom air, these organisms work to keep the ocean healthy. “It’s a small-scale effect,” Matthew adds, “but it is something you can do on a local scale. We’re sucking up excess carbon from the ocean, taking it out, and feeding it to people.” (Beal is more cautious about whether kelp can help mitigate the effects of climate change. “It’s a good hypothesis,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s shown to be the case on the larger scale.” He mentions that kelp does oxygenate the water, which is good for maintaining sea life.)

In addition to growing sustainable foods, the Morettis are also committed to using nontoxic materials and eco-friendly fuels. Matthew and Gary use food-grade hydraulic oil on the sites where they harvest, and they use heavy-metal-free paint for the bottom of their boats. Gary points out that the paint used on the bottom of most boats is “notoriously toxic—by design.” Fishermen and sea- farmers don’t want barnacles or algae growing on the bottom of their vessels. “We found the most environmentally sensitive stuff we could use,” he says.

For Gary and Matthew, these seemingly small decisions “aren’t really choices.” According to Gary, they are just the cost of doing business on Earth. “We don’t get to do it our way. We have to do it the way,” he says. “If there isn’t a good, healthy way to do things, we have to find it.”

Another core tenet of the Wild Ocean mission is providing consistent work for employees and consistent product for buyers. It’s tricky to farm mussels year-round, since they spawn only in a short month-long window during the summer, but Wild Ocean has figured out a good balance. Since they need to supply their clients with consistent, readily available product (this is particularly important for restaurants who want to put local mussels on the menu), the Morettis carefully select where they place their rafts and rigorously control the density of the mussels growing in any given area. The Moretti men have grown their business substantially, but they seem to value slow growth over quick. Jon Gorman, farm manager for Wild Ocean, spent years working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska before he moved to Maine. “Fishing is boom or bust,” he says. “You get rich, or you live out of a backpack. But I came to want steadiness.” He enjoys spending his days on the water harvesting mussels and kelp, but more important, he relies on the steady paycheck, the consistent work. “We’re trying to create working waterfront jobs that are steady, reliable, and year-round. It’s very different from commercial fishing,” says Gorman.

Everyone at the company seems enamored with their product, and for good reason. The mussels are excellent: meaty, smooth, a bit sweet, a bit briny. They taste good cooked in white wine and doused with lemon, but Gorman likes to eat them straight from the shell. “If there’s a cracked one, I’ll slurp it up on the barge,” he says. Gary compares the mussels to a fine wine from Tuscany. The same grapes, he said, could be grown anywhere, and make “an OK bottle of wine, all said and done.” But there are some pockets of soil that grow incredible Tuscan wines, and there are some pockets of Casco Bay where mussels truly thrive.

Since mussels are sold by the pound, the Wild Ocean staff are constantly measuring the meat-to-shell ratio to guarantee that they’re providing a good value (and an enjoyable eating experience, since no one likes picking through a crowded bowl of shells to get a bite or two of meat). Growing these plump mussels takes vigilance—keeping predators, like ducks, away from the barges, for example, and keeping the nets clean. “It takes consistent effort to keep mussels happy, but when you do the results can be incredible,” says Matthew. “They’re really lazy old mussels,” Gary says with a laugh. “They like to hang on a rope and do nothing but feed, with no competition except each other. They grow fast, they grow fat, and they’re really well taken care of.” That is, he adds, “up until the final moment” when they’re tossed into the pot. Unlike the idle mussels, Matthew and Gary have committed to a life of hard work, bringing aquatic bounty from shovel to stovetop. The results so far have been sweet—for Maine’s restaurants, our economy, and our busy working waterfront.