Growing millions of mussels beneath the Pacific Ocean waves

Six miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, millions of smooth-shelled mussels are flourishing in an underwater farm. Our supervising producer Abbie Fentress Swanson takes us on a visit to Catalina Sea Ranch, ahead of its first shellfish harvest in July.

You wouldn’t find it if you didn’t know where to look. But six miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, California, amid strong currents, monster waves and Great White sharks, a 100-acre underwater farm is flourishing. “On the surface, all you can see is the corner buoys and the surface floats that we have that hold our lines up,” says Matt Grant, who manages the operations for Catalina Sea Ranch. “Everything else is underwater so unless you’re diving, you don’t get to see too much.”

Take a dive 15 feet below the surface, and the ranch Grant works for begins to reveal itself. Hundreds of fuzzy ropes hang suspended beneath the ocean waves, clustered with millions and millions of dark blue, smooth-shelled mussels. This is Catalina Sea Ranch, the first commercial aquafarm operating in US federal waters on the West Coast. The aquafarm is preparing to harvest its first crop of mussels in July.

Catalina Sea Ranch has planted 70 million mussels in the open ocean. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

The United States imports more than 90 percent of our seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and most of the shellfish in our moules frites, cioppino and paella come all the way from Canada. “I found out that the United States imports every year about 35 million pounds of live mussels all the way from Prince Edward Island, 3,500 air-polluting miles away,” said Catalina Sea Ranch founder and CEO Phil Cruver. “I said, ‘We could do it ourselves, we can grow our own, offshore-California.’”

But open-ocean aquaculture is a controversial business. Oil platforms offshore near Catalina Island have long been home to native mollusks. No one has gotten permits to grow them in the Pacific Ocean, which begins three miles off the coast, until now. Since 2011, Cruver has been addressing tough questions about the project’s environmental impacts, monitoring requirements and the economic implications of the ranch on the fishing industry. It took longer than expected to raise the millions of dollars needed to fund the aquafarm. Cruver said getting aquaculture permits any closer to the coast would have been nearly impossible. He chose the San Pedro Shelf for the ranch because it is the largest underwater plateau on the West Coast and only a 30-minute boat ride from the Port of Los Angeles.

Ranch manager Matt Grant pulls up a cluster of two-and-a-half inch-long mussels from the ocean that is nearly ready to be harvested. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

Now, with money in hand, Catalina Sea Ranch has a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers to grow mussels in 100 acres of ocean to a depth of 150 feet. At sea, they feed on naturally occurring phytoplankton, taking them about six months to reach the market size of 2½-inches-long. They’re protected from predators like seagulls because they’re out of sight. Starfish can’t eat them because the ranch ropes don’t reach the seafloor. “It’s so exciting because we’re not only starting a new company, we’re starting a new industry. I’ve had six startups; I’m an entrepreneur … but nothing as exciting as this. And it’s not just the dimension of mussels, which was the primary purpose, but now there are other marine species we’re looking at, there are mollusks, there are macroalgae. It’s just got a tremendous future,” says Cruver.

“What we’re hoping to do is start educating the public on aquaculture as a whole,” says the director of marketing and sales, Kelly Stromberg. “We want to do a little combination of everything: the research, the teaching and making food.” (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

In a converted cargo container at the port, the ranch is also working with University of Southern California researchers to lengthen the time that mussels spawn and even to freeze mussel larvae so the shellfish can be grown year-round. (Mussels spawn only twice a year.) Through selective breeding, they also want to grow mussels that yield more meat, resist diseases and withstand ocean acidification. “Right now, we’re growing the Mediterranean mussel or the Mytilus galloprovincialis,” says the director of marketing and sales, Kelly Stromberg. “It’s kind of your most common mussel, especially on the West Coast. But this is also the same mussel that would grow in Spain, for instance, even all the way down to South Africa.”

These efforts are funded in part by NOAA and the US Department of Agriculture. The idea, Stromberg says, is to turn mussels into an even more sustainable food. “They’re low on the trophic level so they’re eaten by other predators. They’re the smallest organism that bigger organisms eat,” she says. “They are high in protein. Per gram of protein in a mussel exceeds what you’d get in a cow. We’re running out of land space and they [cows] also are high in carbon emissions just by being animals. So these [mussels] are actually absorbing carbon, helping the environment.”

Since its hatchery isn’t yet at full scale, the ranch orders baby mussels from shellfish hatcheries in Oregon and seeds them on mesh material or frayed ropes. As they get larger, the mussels must be thinned out to allow room for growth. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

Curious customers can soon try these mussels at Pier 76 Fish Grill and King’s Fish House, among other local restaurants and supermarkets. Cruver says they’ll cost more than the Prince Edward Island variety because his mussels are larger and harvested fresh from the Pacific Ocean. The ranch goal is to harvest one million pounds in the year ahead. But unpredictable conditions at sea make this a daunting proposition. On our visit to the northeast corner of the ranch, one of the 600-foot lines that the mussels hang from has been cut. This is one of the problems we have,” says ranch manager Matt Grant. “The lines are meant to be 15 feet deep so any vessel under 80 feet will pass right over it without hitting it. Any really large vessels like container ships will hit stuff. But they have radar. They are supposed to stay out of here.”

Then there are the Great White sharks. “They do come through here. It’s a more popular area for mako sharks and thresher sharks, but there have been juvenile White sharks that come within a couple of miles of here. I’m hoping I’ll get to see one while diving,” says Grant. “We were out here a few months ago and we saw an 8-foot hammerhead.”

On land, the crew keeps a close eye on the ranch with help from its NOMAD (Navy Oceanographic Meteorological Automatic Device) buoy. The buoy is solar- and wind-powered, and transmits data about weather, marine mammals and water quality back to shore. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)
All photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner