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Species Focus: Blue Mussels

Expanding supplies reflect market growth for this affordable, user-friendly shellfish

By Rick Ramseyer
April 01, 2006

Last year, with oyster production on the Gulf Coast ravaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Co. scrambled to find a new item to bolster its portfolio. It didn’t take long to settle on blue mussels.

“The mussels excited me, because the market continues to grow,” says Steve Hillman, VP of the family-owned business in Dickinson, Texas.

In December, the company began offering farm-raised, rope-grown Chilean mussels. Chile is a major supplier of blue mussels to North America, along with traditional production areas in Maine, Washington state and Canada.

Hillman Shrimp and Oyster is on pace to sell 160,000 pounds of mussels in 2006, or up to 2 percent of the company’s annual gross sales of $15 million to $16 million. And that may be just for starters.

“We have some large chains and high-volume casinos that are looking at the product right now,” Hillman says. “The response has been phenomenal.”

His upbeat assessment is understandable. Blue mussels, which have a rich, distinctive flavor -- often described as a blend of oysters and clams -- are inexpensive, nutritious and easy to cook. And, thanks in part to industry efforts to improve consistency and quality, mussels have become an increasingly popular selection at restaurants across the country.

They’re on the menu at Italian-themed chains such as Olive Garden, Carrabba’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, as well as seafood specialists like Red Lobster, Bonefish Grill, Chart House and Charley’s Crab. They’re also featured in non-traditional foodservice settings, from casinos to cruise ships.

Moreover, mussels are available at many supermarkets and specialty grocers, in addition to Internet-based retail outlets.

The blue-mussel business comprises four key species: Mytilus edulis, farmed and wild-harvested in North American waters and usually sold live; M. chilensis, a similar variety that’s farm-raised in Chile and typically sold frozen; M. trossulus, farmed in Washington state and distinctive for its creamy-white meat (versus the apricot-color core of its East Coast cousin); and M. galloprovincialis, the Mediterranean mussel.

U.S. trade data in 2005 shows mussels’ steady strength. From January through December, imports of live farm-raised blue mussels from Canada hit 18.8 million pounds, up from 17.8 million pounds for the same 12 months the previous year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Frozen cultivated mussels from Chile, meanwhile, rose from 2.5 million pounds to nearly 2.6 million pounds.

(Frozen, farm-raised green mussels from New Zealand still account for the majority of mussel imports, rising from 25.8 million pounds in 2004 to 26.6 million pounds last year.)

Chilean connections

One of the leading suppliers of Chilean mussels to North America is PanaPesca USA Corp. in Pembroke, Mass., which has provided cooked, frozen, vacuum-packed product since 1999.

“It’s really taken off,” says Michael Davis, PanaPesca’s president, citing sales of 1 million-plus pounds annually. “What we sold in the first year we’re now doing per month.”

PanaPesca has in-shell, halfshell and meat-only options for foodservice applications, priced around $1.75 per pound. The bestseller is the in-shell 1-pounder, with a branded, same-size bag also available for retailers.

Camanchaca, a salmon producer in Chile since the late 1980s, is another company that’s banking on the mussel market getting bigger stateside. Now harvesting its first crop, Camanchaca will process 10,000 metric tons of cooked, frozen mussels in 2006 and ultimately could yield over 60,000 metric tons annually.

“In contrast to Europe, the North American market is very under-developed,” says Bert Bachmann, Camanchaca’s VP and general manager in Miami. “The potential is enormous.”

Like PanaPesca, Camanchaca offers three choices -- whole-shell, halfshell and mussel meat -- with wholesale prices in February ranging from just over $1 to $1.50 or so per pound.

And while the traditional favorite remains in-shell mussels as an appetizer, Bachmann thinks mussel meat in salads or as an entree accompaniment may hold even more promise.

“The real opportunity to expand this big-time is when you take it out of the shell,” Bachmann says. “The devoted seafood eater loves it in the shell, but for the average person eating mussels for the taste and nutritional benefits, you don’t need it.”

Alive and kicking

The bulk of North America’s blue mussels stem from Canada’s Prince Edward Island (where they are rope-grown) and Maine (where they primarily are bottom-cultured or wild-caught).

JP’s Shellfish in Westerly, R.I., handles farmed P.E.I.s and wild Maine mussels, and demand for both is on the rise.

“It’s big volume,” says Tom Ahern, head of the Rhode Island sales office for JP’s, which has a plant in Prince Edward Island, a processing facility Downeast Maine and a distribution center in Eliot, Maine, near the New Hampshire border.

JP’s packs 2-pound bags of mussels for grocery retailers, “but most of the action is in foodservice,” says Ahern, noting in late February that JP’s per-pound pricing was about $1.20 for P.E.I.s and 75 cents for Maine mussels, f.o.b. Boston.

Offering Canadian and U.S. product is especially beneficial when one resource becomes unavailable, as happened last summer during the weeks-long closure of Maine mussel beds due to red tide.

“The bottom line is we have mussels every day,” Ahern says.

American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingstown, R.I., is high on blues, too, stocking Maine, P.E.I. and Mediterranean product for customers in places like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, New York and Florida.

The No. 1 sellers are “restaurant-ready” bottom-cultivated mussels that have been purged, cleaned and debearded.

“Right now we’ve got about 8,000 pounds of frozen product here and well over 150,000 pounds live,” says Matthew DiMatteo, director of sales. “So, obviously, fresh is the way we like to go.”

Oh Canada

Prince Edward Island produces more than 90 percent of Canada’s blue mussels. P.E.I.’s tally has averaged 38 million pounds for the past five years, up from just 12 million pounds in 1993, says Calvin Jollimore, owner of L&C Fisheries, a local business that sells live mussels under the Green Gables brand.

L&C produces between 2 million and 2.5 million pounds of mussels annually, most bound for foodservice outlets in the United States.

“We try to maintain a $1 [per pound] price, f.o.b. out of our plant, but it’s been hard lately with the U.S. dollar losing its strength,” Jollimore says.

In Maine, mussel farming brings in anywhere from $7 million to $10 million a year, albeit the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association recently told the Bangor Daily News that the industry could reach $100 million with more political support and technology.

Great Eastern Mussel Farms in Tenants Harbor produces approximately 7 million pounds of mussels per year, half of them cultivated and the remainder wild-caught.

“We’ve been limited by supply,” says Chip Davison, the company’s president and founder. “There’s a maximum sustainable harvest of maybe 5 million pounds of wild mussels in Maine. After that, you’ve got to farm.”

As such, Great Eastern recently formed a partnership to market the shellfish produced by Aquaculture Harvesters, a venture launched by a mussel farmer from the Netherlands who moved to Maine last year. (His mussel-harvesting boat was christened in February.)

“We’re optimistic, or we wouldn’t be putting a [new] boat out in the water,” Davison says.

Mussels aren’t limited to the East Coast, of course. Annual production in Washington is estimated at 1,400 tons.

Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville, Wash., which has farmed local mussels since 1975 and cultivated the Mediterranean species for a decade, yielded 1.25 million pounds of mussels in 2005 and will hit 1.5 million pounds this year.

“I never thought I’d see the day where the demand is greater than our supply,” says Ian Jefferds, Penn Cove’s general manager. “We expanded our mussel farm last year, we’re expanding it again this year, and we’ll be expanding it again next year.”

Menu margins

Given blue mussels’ versatility, year-round availability and low price, it’s no surprise that restaurant operators see mussels as a profitable menu addition.

Skipjack’s Restaurants in Newton, Mass., which buys about 220 pounds of mussels a week for its three locations, has found that even slightly higher P.E.I. prices -- resulting from the weak U.S. dollar -- leave plenty of room for healthy margins.

“The mussels might cost you two bucks on the plate, but you might get eight bucks for them,” says chef-partner Andrew Wilkinson, who throughout the year receives a mix of farmed, wild and imported product from his seafood supplier.

While mussels are an ingredient in cioppino and roasted-lobster broth at Skipjack’s, the top draw is the in-shell mussel appetizer.

“It’s something that’s excellent for people to share,” Wilkinson says.

Operators of upper-tier concepts apparently agree. Crimson, founded by chef Diane Rose in Los Gatos, Calif., features coconut-curry mussels with kaffir lime, green onions and cilantro for $13. And the Aqua Blu Restaurant in San Diego gets $13 for sake-steamed mussels seasoned with shaved fennel, pickled ginger and sesame-coconut cream.

Casual-dining chains are menuing mussels as well. Olive Garden, the 570-unit chain operated by Darden Restaurants in Orlando, Fla., has two P.E.I.-sourced mussel dishes: Mussels di Napoli (mussels in the shell, simmered with wine, garlic-butter and onions) for $7.75 and Seafood Portofino (mussels, scallops, shrimp and mushrooms with linguine in a garlic-butter wine sauce) for $13.95.

And Carrabba’s Italian Grill, a 200-unit chain that is a joint-venture partner with Outback Steakhouse in Tampa, Fla., touts P.E.I. mussels on its Web site, stressing that rope-growing “prevents the mussels from ever touching the ground, producing a clean and meatier mussel.”

Retail muscle

Retailers, too, are benefiting from mussels’ might.

Robert Wholey & Co. in Pittsburgh carries Maine and Canadian mussels, plus branded frozen product from Chile, totaling 100,000 pounds per year.

In early March, Wholey -- which has about 20 seafood markets within Shop-n-Save stores in Pennsylvania -- was selling 2-pound bags of Maine and P.E.I. mussels for $4.99 and $5.99, respectively, at its 25,000-square-foot retail outlet in downtown Pittsburgh.

The company’s frozen, heat-and-serve Chilean mussels, sold nationwide under the Wholey label, are priced $4.99 to $5.99 for a 2-pound bag.

“We’re getting a good response,” says Daniel Schumacher, Wholey’s director of global seafood operations. “They’re very plump and sweet.”

On the West Coast, G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa, Calif., was selling blue mussels from Canada for $3.99 a pound last month. The mussels are “especially popular from around Thanksgiving until the first of the year,” says Greg Fagundes, G&G’s meat counter supervisor.

Pure Food Fish Market in Seattle, meanwhile, was listing 5 pounds of Puget Sound mussels online for $30.

All told, the outlook for blue mussels appears bright. And that’s particularly rewarding for long-time players like Penn Cove Shellfish, which has seen its share of ups and downs since the mid-1970s.

“Finally,” Jefferds says, “it’s a good place be.”

Find other SeaFood Business articles with blue mussels here.

Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland, Maine

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