LAMOINE — Aboard Mumbles, the 60-foot custom-built barge used by the owner-operators of Pemaquid Mussel Farms, there is specialized mussel-processing equipment from all over the world. The machines from Spain, Holland and Prince Edward Island are a testament to the breadth of skipper Carter Newell’s experience and networks in the world of aquaculture business, research and development.
“We’ve learned a lot about how to grow mussels,” said Newell, who earned a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of New Brunswick while working in aquaculture. He joined the team at the former Great Eastern Mussel Farms in the early 1980s. His job there was quality control and research and development for the company.
Newell was part of a Mussel Working Group in Maine, testing and adapting mussel farming techniques used elsewhere in the world. When they heard about the Spanish technique of growing mussels on ropes suspended from rafts, he said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘There’s no way we can do that.’”
After plenty of trial and error when ducks ate the small seed mussels, large mussels got so heavy that they slid off the hanging ropes, and divers had to untangle ropes from each other, they began to get the hang of it.
Great Eastern put out a call to fishermen and set up a network of ten mussel farms from Portland to Jonesport reach. They built Mumbles with Vic and Tim Levesque at Bar Harbor Marine in Trenton in 2000. When Pemaquid Mussel Farms took over the leases and assets of Great Eastern in 2008, the operation was down to a more manageable five sites. “The original ten were way too spread out,” Newell said with a grin, “especially since we only go five knots.”
On a blustery morning last week, Newell met up with his crew at Lamoine State Park for a short harvesting day. Leissa Long, a Bar Harbor native who lives in Hancock, and Greg Thompson have each been part of this company on and off since its inception. Fourth man Brendan Browne has experience in several fisheries and mechanics; Newell likes to have a multi-talented group aboard.
The day’s order from markets and restaurants was for 800 pounds. With the air temperature hovering at freezing and high wind early in the day, they varied their routine, saving the raft maintenance and re-seeding the rope for the next trip.
Most days, they’ll steam out to one of their rafts carrying ice in 1,000-pound totes filled. Thompson climbs out onto the raft and begins removing the protective netting. The barge’s crane arm carries a special 9-foot basket overboard, and the crew positions it under the raft. Thompson releases one rope into the water and into the basket. Back on the barge, Long and Browne carefully shake the ropes to get the mussels to fall off.
At each point in the harvesting and processing, Newell said, the mussels can only drop a few inches without damage.
The processing line begins with two de-clumpers to separate and clean the mussels. The product proceeds along belts through graders which sort them by size and save the smallest ones to be used later for seed. A machine called a de-bysser pulls off the small hairs. After passing through another grader and inspection belt, the mussels go back into water where they’ll “purge” – cleaning themselves by filtering water. The crew scoops them into 10-pound restaurant bags, attaches the market tags. “We can bag two thousand pounds an hour,” Newell said. “That’s faster than any bagging machine.”
The lack of a loading dock at Lamoine means the crew must back their pickup trucks down the beach, pull their skiff up to the shore and unload by hand. State funding could be available to turn the old coal pier next to the Marine Patrol station into a working dock again, Newell said, but because it’s part of the state park, the state wouldn’t be allowed to make a grant to itself to fund the improvement.
Logistics like the dock, he said, are the biggest impediments to scaling up. “We only produce three million pounds of mussels in the U.S., and we’re importing 50 million.”
Newell has helped secure several rounds of Small Business Innovation grants from the National Science Foundation to build computer models for aquaculture sites and now consults on projects around the country. “It doesn’t have to be trial and error aquaculture anymore,” he said.
Other research projects include a new submersible raft, a prototype of which sits off Lamoine marked by yellow buoys. If the raft itself sits underwater, Newell said, it’s less susceptible to damage from wind and weather.