A Friday in Musselville
June 23, 2017
In the morning the sweet steam from the cup of coffee fills my nose as I drive slowly through the rain and dark trying to break through my sleepy haze before arriving at work. The boat sits silently in the dark with the equipment loaded, ready and waiting for the day to begin. We chug slowly east as the sun creeps over the horizon and turns the world crimson red, we contemplate the weather, and if we will get the day’s work in before a Nor’ Easter blows through. It’s a Friday in March, and the last day of mussel seeding for the year. It has not been easy to haul up the over packed seed lines, and we are ready for this week to be done.
We get to our farm as the sunrise dissipates to soft daylight, and start hauling the seed into the boat with no real problems. Waiting this late in the seasons makes the mussels heavier and harder to deal with. Still we truck on hauling up a mixed bag of beautiful, fully-stocked seed rope and broken, tangled, neglected seed rope. After clearing out the last of it from the water, we start our journey south going from our farm in the bay under the Newport Bridge, past Fort Wetherill and Castle Hill, through the narrow channel that so many ships have sailed before and into the open ocean. When we reach open water, we set our heading for east and cruise past the multi-million-dollar mansions that speckle the rocky coastline of Newport dreaming about the people that built those mansions and where the money came from...railroads? Oil money? Mussel farming?? Most likely they were mussel tycoons from the late 1800’s!
While we are steaming from one location to another, we take a quick bite to eat and then proceed to rearrange the deck of the boat to replant the seed we just harvested. Setting up the other set of equipment is an important step to do correctly because minor mistakes take forever to correct when you are in the middle of seeding. Also, the equipment has a tendency to be finicky, so a watchful eye must be on it the whole time.
We get to the offshore site. This is the first one in America to produce any commercial mussels; and although it is not in federal waters, it is still an offshore farm that is operating (a point of contention in the aquaculture world because several people are making this claim but not producing any shellfish...only stories). We pull the sunken long-line from the depths of the ocean, and do a quick inspection of the seed-catching ropes that we set out earlier that year and grow-out rope that we left through the summer and into the winter as an experiment.
Everything looks good so we start into seeding as the skies off to the east darken ominously, and the time bomb starts ticking. Already this site is difficult to work with our current boat, and the 30+ mph winds in the forecast would make it downright dangerous. So we work quickly to beat out the storm.
We lift the 1,000-pound mussel bags and dump them into a hopper, a belt runs underneath throwing them into a tube that surrounds them in a biodegradable cotton. That gives them time to attach their byssals to the grow-out rope. We tie lashings on to the mainline at 10 meter intervals as the seeded mussel rope is pumped out into the ocean. It is going smoothly for a couple of bags, but the storm can be seen on the horizon much closer now. Tensions really rise when the cotton breaks and the operation grinds to a halt with 1 bag left to dump in the hopper. We jump down to fix the broken cotton back to the seed-rope, but it rips again! Then the waves start rocking the whole working platform as we try to figure out why the cotton keeps ripping. Finally as the wind kicks up another notch we realize the cotton is catching on itself and not able to pull through on its own. I loosen the remaining cotton as the operation resumes; and after a stressful hour, the mussels are seeded onto the long-line, and we are nearly finished.
The last step is to float the line properly in the water column which is easier said than done. It needs to float 20’ below the surface of the water. The weights are always changing depending on how much the mussels are growing, and you have to drop the line in the water to really see how it floats. Storm is not on the horizon now, it is right on top of us. We drop the line in the water, but alas there are too many floats! We try to jump back on, but the wind is blowing us all over the place. We manage to take off one last float, and it looks good enough so we let the wind be at our backs and blow us home through the pissing rain and cold.
The rocky ride home gets better as we round the corner into Newport harbor, a historical safe haven from the high seas. An hour and a half later, we are back at the dock ready for a beer, and a weekend. TGIF, and thank God mussel planting is done for the year. Although, we are already busy planning next year’s game plan.