Our Ocean at Work: Mussel-ing into the Atlantic

Founded in 1623 by pioneers, the fate and fortune of Gloucester on the eastern tip of Cape Ann in Massachusetts has always been anchored to our ocean. Not only is it America’s oldest fishing port, Gloucester also boasts the oldest continuously operated fishing company in Gorton’s. For almost four centuries, fisherman have gone out onto the waters of the Atlantic to haul in rich catches of lobster, cod, Atlantic herring, pollock, monkfish, white hake and haddock, among others.

A large number of residents still rely on our ocean for their livelihoods. But as global and regional catches have seen significant declines coupled with shifts in fish stocks due to warming waters, Gloucester’s economy has suffered.

In order to ensure fishermen’s way of life and coastal communities like Gloucester can continue to thrive, innovative approaches to grow the local economy are needed.

The idea of an offshore mussel “farm” was brought to the table by Ted Maney and Mark Fregeau, biologists at the Northeastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center (NEMAC) at Salem State University. “With the depressed fishing economics going on in the Northeast, this is a new avenue for fishermen,” says Ted Maney. “They could either do this full-time or supplement what they are doing now by setting up or working on a mussel farm.”

In 2013, NEMAC put forward a proposal for a mussel farm in federal waters off Cape Ann. A phased approach would begin with a 400-foot longline submerged to a depth of 50 feet and anchored to our ocean floor. One hundred 25-foot lines would be suspended from the longline on which mussels would grow. When expanded, this farm could eventually cover 33 acres with buoys marking the location of the underwater farm.

Our ocean is an increasingly busy place and the proposal for the mussel farm needed review and approval by several federal and state agencies to ensure it would not impact other ocean uses and the marine ecosystem.

Using the Northeast Ocean Data Portal, Maney and his team were able to access data and information on complex ocean uses including vessel traffic, essential fish habitat and potential overlap with Endangered Species Act listings. Using the vast amount of data available on the portal, they were able to site their proposed mussel farm in a way that would have little or no negative impacts on fishing activity, commercial and recreational vessel traffic and protected marine resources. For example, they were able to site the mussel farm in an area that avoided important feeding areas for protected whale species.The data portal provided access to data that could have otherwise meant lengthy negotiations and long delays to the plan.

“The Northeast Ocean Data Portal was instrumental in obtaining the necessary information to complete these assessments,” notes Maney.

Thanks to the data portal, the permitting process and cross-check with existing laws became easier and more efficient.

In 2015, NEMAC was issued a permit by the Army Corps of Engineers to establish the mussel farm. By August 2016, Fregeau and Maney began setting up the initial 400-foot longline that was expected to produce a yield of approximately 15,000pounds of mussels. This farm is now a sustainable complement to traditional wild fisheries, helping broaden and diversity the coastal economy.

Today, the NEMAC blue mussel farm is the first offshore shellfish farm in federal waters on the Atlantic Coast–and a terrific example of how ocean planning works!

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