August 01 2012 Lewis Smith
A plate of Exmouth mussels
Mussels from the mouth of the River Exe have been certified as sustainable despite being in a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest.
The Exmouth Mussel Company, in Devon, won certification from the Marine Stewardship Council after developing environmentally-friendly techniques to harvest the shellfish.
Many mussels are dredged, a method that can cause severe damage to the ground where the shellfish grow and has been banned in the Ex estuary. But the mussels in the Exe are instead collected using jets of water that strip them from the muddy bottom without breaking up the sand and gravel below.
Myles Blood Smyth, who started the company in 2001 with his wife Lisa, is proud of the business’s environmental record and said the MSC certification provides independent support for his claims to be operating ethically.
“It’s extremely important for me personally,” he said. “I tell everybody that we go about things the right way, ethically and symbiotically with the environment but nobody believes you because you’re a fisherman. People believe fishermen just take and don’t put back. People can now see we’ve been independently assessed. It has credibility and backs up what we say.”
He is so convinced of the benefits of the “hydraulic jet” technique for lifting mussels from their beds that he believes it should be widely adopted by the shellfish industry in place of dredging.
Among the measures the company takes that it believes is environmentally friendly is its practice of taking seed for its mussel beds from an exposed area of the estuary that is stripped bare by storms each winter. By the time they are harvested they will have spawned at least twice, and some of the biggest mussels are relocated – rather than eaten - to provide a protected breeding stock.
The mussel beds grown by the business also provide habitat or food for other marine creatures, such as tube worms, barnacles and green crabs. They help feed a variety of wading birds such as dunlin, oystercatchers, knots and avocets. At least 57 species of animal have been found living on, in or feeding on the mussel beds.
The “chef-ready” mussels are sold to wholesalers which supply the restaurant industry and, said Mr Blood Smyth, have not just a high meat content but score highly for taste, colour and texture.
In 2010 the company produced and processed 157 tonnes, rising to 174 tonnes last year and he hopes to exceed 250 tonnes this year, with a further 500 to 600 tonnes of unprocessed mussels being exported for processing by other businesses. Eventually, he intends to have enough beds to supply 1,000 tonnes annually and believes such a quantity is easily supportable by the estuary – at the beginning of the 20th century the area produced so much that two train loads of mussels were sent to London daily.
Assessors inspecting the fishery said that although it is in a local and national park and a site of special scientific interest, it meets all the conservation requirements placed on it by bodies such as Natural England and may even be improving the estuary’s ecology. In their report they said: “The assessment found that the fishery operates in good compliance with the various demands placed on it by conservation, and perhaps more importantly makes a pro-active effort to support conservation and to foster good relations with conservation bodies.”
Matt Watson, of the MSC, said: ‘I’m really pleased to congratulate the Exmouth Mussel Company on receiving their MSC certification. This is fantastic news as it is a well-managed fishery run by a company that prides itself on protecting the local environment in which it operates.
“By using machinery that creates minimal disturbance, the Exmouth Mussel Company can protect the wide variety of marine life in the area, including fish, crabs and sponges.”
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