Fishers hatch mussel survival plan

Faced with a serious decline in the natural reproduction of mussels in Victoria's Port Phillip Bay, growers entered into an agreement with researchers to establish a mussel hatchery at Queenscliff, successfully reviving their industry

Ben Burke and Jack Reynolds check the mussel ropes set out in Sea Bounty's Port Phillip Bay leases.

By Catherine Norwood

Victoria is close to regaining its position as Australia’s leading producer of mussels, after recovering from a production decline that reduced output by as much as 80 per cent.

The recovery has been led by a grower–government collaboration to establish a hatchery at Queenscliff, which is now creating opportunities to expand into the production of other shellfish.

Port Phillip Bay has traditionally been the heart of Victoria’s mussel industry, and the largest producer in the bay is Sea Bounty, based at Portarlington and operated by Lance Wiffen.

When he first entered the fishing industry in the 1980s, mussels were actually just a sideline; scallops were his primary catch. “But I soon found I had as much invested in mussel production as I did in the scallops,” Lance Wiffen says.

“And when the government banned scallop harvesting in Port Phillip Bay in the 1990s, then I really had to make the mussels work.”

Mussel production boomed during the 1990s, and Lance Wiffen was one of 21 licenced operators in Port Phillip Bay and Western Port. Driven largely by the growth of the industry in the bay, the state harvest increased fourfold during the decade, from 300 tonnes in 1990–91 to 1582 tonnes in 2001–02. Then began the decline.

“We were always under the impression that there was more natural spat than we would ever need,” Lance Wiffen says. “But that was not the case. At one stage we were putting in thousands more catching ropes, for longer, and there was still no guarantee there would be enough spat to fill even my regular orders.”

Sea Bounty’s harvest plummeted from a peak of more than 1000 tonnes to only 200 tonnes in 2007–08. While the business struggled on, many other growers walked away from their leases. Today, there are only a handful of operators in the bay.

Uncertain cause

Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) aquaculture officer John Mercer says that despite considerable effort from both industry and government between 2004 and 2006 no definitive cause was found for the decline in mussel spat.

It was eventually attributed to the influence of extended drought. The reduction in natural inflows into the bay resulted in fewer nutrients in the water for the algae that the mussels feed on, and salinity levels also increased. At the same time as natural runoff declined, the Western Treatment Plant also reduced the nutrient levels flowing into the bay.

John Mercer says research during this time trialled a number of different methods to improve the capture of wild spat. This included the inversion of the traditional longline. The inverted system places the longline closer to the water line, attached to the buoys, with the dropper ropes hanging down from the longline. This approach has since been adopted by several growers.

Growing their own

If natural production was uncertain and the cause unknown, the next logical step for those committed to the industry was to buy in hatchery-produced spat. When this proved unsuccessful, a group of farmers led by three growers – Lance Wiffen, Peter Bold (Advanced Mussels) and Peter Lillie (Bay Sea Farms) – entered into a collaborative agreement with the Victorian DPI to “develop a recipe” to grow their own mussels.

It took a year to get the $1.3 million Victorian Shellfish Hatchery agreement in place and to build the hatchery at the Victorian DPI’s Queenscliff research centre before production could begin in 2008. The first year of production was a total failure. The second year was ‘crunch time’: was the hatchery worth pursuing?

John Mercer says a workshop following the first season proved crucial to the hatchery’s later success. Australian and internation

al aquaculture experts, including those from the oyster and pearl industries, as well as other mussel producers, came together to review the hatchery’s operations and identify possible causes for the failure.

Among the most likely problems identified were the “newness” of the hatchery facility – the residues remaining from construction – temperature and handling shocks and the algae feed supply for the larval spat. The microalgae Chaetoceros calcitrans had originally been included in the diet of the larvae, but it proved to be expensive and difficult to work with in the laboratory.

“Other hatcheries were successfully raising spat without it, and because of the difficulties involved and our limited resources we removed it from the program. But the workshop suggested that for this species of mussel, at this site, it might have been a critical part of the diet, which has turned out to be the case,” John Mercer says.

The second spawning at the hatchery was a success and the farmers were able to set out seeded ropes to secure their production for the following year. Now in its fifth year of operation, the hatchery currently does four to five spawning runs a season. Each run produces 1200 ropes, each seeded with between 50,000 and 70,000 mussels per rope.

Lance Wiffen says the success of the hatchery was a massive relief, even though natural spat production appears to have returned to normal levels. Although the hatchery spat is more expensive, he continues to rely on it to establish production for the year ahead. He also sets lines for the collection of natural spat “as a backup”.

The hatchery project has reached the second stage of development and is now a purely private joint venture for the three commercial operators, who lease the facility from the Victorian DPI.

Diversification

“We are on our own now,” Lance Wiffen says. “In the next three years we have to find a new site for the hatchery. If we can expand the market for mussels we can also expand hatchery production. We are also looking to increase hatchery production to include oyster and scallop spat.”

The oysters he has in mind are Native Oysters (Ostrea angasi), native flat oysters, which have been found growing on mussel lines in Port Phillip Bay. There were wild populations in the bay, but they were largely wiped out by a protist disease 20 years ago.

More than one million oyster spat have already been produced in the hatchery, and Lance Wiffen has set out 30,000 oysters on one of Sea Bounty’s seven lease sites in Port Phillip Bay as part of a trial into the best growing techniques. They were set out in December 2011 and he plans to harvest them in April 2013. He also plans for another 500,000 oysters this year.

The move into oyster production will help to diversify his business risk, rather than relying entirely on mussels. It will also help to increase returns from the hatchery.

“I am confident we can produce good oyster spat,” Lance Wiffen says. “But we are still uncertain about the cost of production. It needs to be cost-efficient. There are also limited sites for growing-out oysters in the bay.”

He also believes scallop production could be an option, “but we will need to get the techniques right first”. Scallops are successfully cultivated in several countries, including Japan. Hatchery-produced scallops are used to either reseed natural scallop beds, or are grown in hanging lantern net systems. Scallop aquaculture has not yet been commercially successful in Australia.

Whether it be mussels, oysters or scallops, Lance Wiffen is optimistic about the future of seafood production from the Bellarine region, saying the hatchery provides the potential to significantly increases harvests. In 2013 the Victorian Government may auction new aquaculture leases at Pinnace Channel, near the entrance of Port Phillip Bay, where Sea Bounty already has one lease in operation.

To be successful in the industry new entrants will need to be smart operators, highly capitalised and highly motivated, Lance Wiffen says. They will need some marketing expertise, or an established market they can supply. Although there is capacity to increase production, existing markets are highly competitive.

New markets

One of the major challenges in increasing production is to increase demand for the product. When it comes to mussels, Lance Wiffen says there is a lot of work to be done to make them a regular part of people’s diet.

Sea Bounty already supplies live mussels to Coles supermarkets and to seafood agents and wholesalers. It has a variety of size options, from one-kilogram consumer packs to 30-kilogram bins.

During the next 12 months Lance Wiffen hopes to develop some new products that will allow him to expand his range. However, he considers one of the major strengths of his business to be the speed of delivery from harvest to market – just a few hours.

He says celebrity chefs and television cooking programs have all helped to raise the profile of mussels, and new products are helping to reach more consumers. Leading Australian chef Ben Shewry is also a fan of Sea Bounty mussels, as a naturally produced, sustainable product. Shewry runs the restaurant Attica in Melbourne, which was number 63 in the list of the world’s top 100 restaurants in 2012.

“We have the capacity to create an industry like Spain or Belgium, but mussels and seafood are so much more a part of their culture than they are here. In general, seafood is treated here with much less respect than other meats,” Lance Wiffen says.

“The New Zealand mussel industry is 10 to 20 years older than ours, and they sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes. They do have a different product – greenlip mussels (Perna canalicula), which sell well in Asia and the US. But I really think Australia’s Blue Mussel is a far superior product.” 

Photo captions

1. Lance Wiffen has a positive outlook on the industry

3. Maureen Franklin and Lance Wiffen pack mussels into kilogram bags for sale.


Increasing demand

Australian Blue Mussels produced in Victoria jostle for consumer attention alongside those produced in other states – principally South Australia and Tasmania. Production of aquaculture mussels has been an expanding industry in Australia for the past decade.

The industry faces some obstacles to increase production, improve supply chain efficiency and to increase competitiveness against imported mussels.

In late 2008, a small leadership group representing the industry’s 30 mussel producers agreed to establish a national mussel aquaculture organisation and the Australian Mussel Industry Association (AMIA) was formed.

The AMIA has been working to establish the market position for mussels in Australia. This has included undertaking some market research with consumers.

The consumer research told growers two main things:

  • the biggest ‘growth’ market for Australian Blue Mussels was the whole-mussel eat-at-home market; and
  • AMIA must continue to dispel consumer confusion about how to handle and cook mussels – especially to dispel the myths that mussels are complicated and should be discarded when they do not open in cooking.

In late 2012, AMIA launched a pictured-based guide to easy mussels by Australian culinary legend, Peter Russell-Clarke. This followed the development of a strategic plan and the creation of tools for grower members to use in the marketplace.

These AMIA tools includes:

  • the animated stars Murray, Blue and Russ the mussels dispelling the mussel myth;
  • associated fact sheets and banners used at events and other marketing opportunities;
  • two batches of point-of-sale collateral, one using reversible plastic cards for seafood trays and the other a series of recipe cards, decal stickers and posters (all containing the message ‘Mussels are Easy)’; and
  • a dedicated website and Facebook page.

The AMIA aims to communicate its key messages to food bloggers around the country via social media and at public events. AMIA’s future jobs will include helping members to increase Australia’s appetite for mussels and improving consumer confidence in mussels.

More information

Australian Mussels


Boiler on board

Whiteworm has been a problem for mussel producers in Port Philip Bay, affecting the appearance of the shells, although not the meat within.

Biofouling is becoming an increasing issue for mussel growers in Port Phillip Bay and Lance Wiffen has been involved in research to come up with some methods for controlling two major pests: whiteworm and hydroids.

“You can’t remove these from the system, so you have to work out how to deal with them to stop them becoming a problem,” he says.

Whiteworms are a coral worm and while they do not affect the meat of the mussel, they do damage the shell.

“It’s an aesthetic issue really, they leave tracks in the shell, and they can be hard to clean off the shells, which buyers don’t like.”

When it comes to hydroids – marine animals that look more like plants – both local and introduced species are found on the mussel lines in Port Phillip Bay.

“The problem is not so much the hydroids themselves, but the ascidians – sea squirts – and Pacific starfish that come with them,” Lance Wiffen says.

Apart from fouling the mussel lines, the starfish predate the young mussel spat – the wild spat more so than the hatchery spat, Lance Wiffen says.

During the 2011–12 season Lance Wiffen commissioned some trials to come up with management options, testing both freezing and hot-water techniques. Freezing techniques have been used successfully to remove biofouling on oysters, but mussels have a thinner shell. He says that while freezing killed the pests, it also killed the mussels.

However, a hot-water wash proved successful in the trials, and he has developed a commercial boiler that can be fitted onto his fishing vessels. The water is heated to around 80°C onboard and mussel ropes are drawn through a wash held at around 50°C.

“The trials were successful but I haven’t been able to incorporate this technique into my regular operations as yet. I’m lucky that the lines I am harvesting at the moment are relatively clean.”

He says when he does use the hot-water technique he will need to do site-specific trials to find the right temperature to balance mussel survival and pest control, taking into account the age and size of the mussels and the time of year.

The research was supported with some FRDC funding and further research into the control of hydroids is being undertaken at the University of Melbourne.


FRDC Research Code: 2011-241

More information

Sea Bounty