Year-round, but meat yields and harvests decline after spawning. Blue mussels spawn in summer, Mediterranean and greenshell mussels spawn in winter.
PRIMARY FISHING METHOD:
Rope-grown, bottom cultured and wild dredged.
• Light meat yield after spawning
• Excellent value. Mussels are perceived by many chefs and consumers to be gourmet seafood, but prices are lower than clams.
It wasn’t that long ago that mussels were virtually unknown in the U.S. outside of a few ethnic markets in the Northeast. But aquaculture and a good marketing job by mussel producers have made mussels one of the seafood industry’s great success stories. Today, Americans have a world of mussels to choose from. Greenshell mussels from New Zealand, blue mussels from Maine or Prince Edward Island, Mediterranean mussels from Washington state—our appetite for this marvelous mollusc is growing by leaps and bounds. Mussels are bivalve molluscs that eat microscopic plankton that they filter from more than 24 gallons of water a day. Mussels are grown on ropes (suspended culture), in cultivated beds (bottom culture) or simply dredged offshore from natural beds.
The blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, is the most common mussel grown in North America. In Canada, Prince Edward Island is the leading producer with an annual harvest of about 15,000 tons. In the U.S., about 2,000 tons of blue mussels are harvested each year in New England. In Washington State, farmers produce about 250 tons of a very similar species, M. trossulus.
Mussel farmers hang ropes in the water to catch free floating mussel larvae, although some farmers raise larvae in hatcheries. After growing on the ropes for about 14-18 months, the mussels are ready to harvest. Almost all of the mussels grown in New Zealand, Canada and Washington state are rope-grown.
On the West Coast, some mussel farmers grow the Mediterranean mussel, M. galloprovincialis, on ropes. This mussel is larger, faster growing and has a higher meat content (50% vs. 35%) than the blue mussel. It also spawns in winter, while blue mussels spawn in the summer. Some farms have begun to raise sterilized triploid Mediterranean mussels which do not spawn. New England fishermen use dredges to harvest wild blue mussels throughout the year. Although these mussels have traditionally been very cheap because of inconsistent quality, some producers are adding value by grading them and purging them in tanks to remove grit. In Europe, where mussels are a passion, more than 300,000 tons of mussels are grown each year. In northern Europe, farmers grow blue mussels, while the Mediterranean mussel is grown in southern European countries, especially Spain.
With an annual production of more than 50,000 tons, New Zealand is the world’s largest producer of the greenshell mussel, Perna canaliculus. The U.S. imports about 9,000 tons of greenshell mussels a year, most of which are lightly steamed and frozen on the half shell or smoked. Greenshells are about 30% larger than blue mussels. The quality—and price—of a mussel is a function of how it was grown. Rope-grown mussels are the most expensive, as they have the highest meat-to-shell ratio and are free of any grit. Bottom cultured and wild mussels that are purged in water to remove any sand or grit cost less than rope-grown mussels. Wild mussels that are not purged are substantially cheaper. The meat content of a mussel can be reduced by 30% or more after it spawns. It takes about two months for the meat yield to fully recover.
The U.S. market for mussels has grown rapidly this decade. Since 1990, U.S. mussel imports have soared from 2,600 tons to more than 15,000 tons. More than 90% of the imports come from two countries, New Zealand and Canada.
Mussels attach themselves to ropes or the bottom with their byssus (biss-us), or beard, which should always be removed before eating. Mussel producers usually remove the byssus, however, it weakens the animal and shortens the shelf life. In the summer, when mussels are already weak from spawning, some producers may leave the byssus on.
Why do some mussels have orange meats and some white? The orange meats are the females, the whites are males. They both taste the same, by the way.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mytilus edulis & M. trossulus (blue), M. galloprovincialis (Mediterranean), Perna canaliculus (greenshell)
MARKET NAME(S): Often marketed by area of origin, i.e., Prince Edward Island mussels, Penn Cove mussels, etc. Greenshell mussels sometimes called greenlip mussels. Mediterranean mussels.
Blue mussels normally 15-20 mussels per pound. Greenshells average 10-15 per pound.
Blue mussels: 20-35%; Greenshells: 35-45%; Mediterranean: 35-50%.
PRODUCT FORMS: FRESH:
Blue and Mediterranean mussels: Mostly live, some lightly steamed and frozen in the shell. Greenshell mussels: Mostly lightly steamed and frozen on the half shell, some live, smoked.
STORAGE & HANDLING:
Most debearded live mussels have a shelf life of 7-10 days, although this decreases to 5-7 days after mussels have spawned. Live mussels should be held at 35-38°F in ice, which must be allowed to drain as fresh water will kill mussels. Frozen mussels have a shelf life of six to nine months.
These delicious bivalves have recently started gaining popularity in the United States for their excellent taste and nutritional value. They have a bold taste and can hold up to strong-flavored recipes such as spicy Asian sauces and garlic mixtures. Usually mussels are served steamed as an appetizer with some nice crusty bread, but they can also be included in pastas or seafood stews such as a bouillabaisse.