We left the dock at San Pedro just as the dawn light broke over a slate grey sky, a glassy black sea. Our craft, the Enterprise, a 72-foot-long World War II-era military grade landing vessel, was headed six-miles offshore, to the Catalina Sea Ranch, where the crew would be harvesting its crop of mussels for the day.
The landside operation of the Ranch—really more an aquatic farm—is run out of a few converted shipping containers stacked inside an old warehouse in the Port of LA, the largest port in North America. Before we embarked, I was given a quick tour of Berth 58, the 60,000-square-foot warehouse where the Ranch has its research hatchery, labs, and offices. There were other startups in the space, including the support team for a guy who plans to swim across the Pacific Ocean. Phil Cruver’s goals are even loftier and more radical than a trans-oceanic swim. Cruver, the founder and CEO of the Sea Ranch, aims to revolutionize the food industry and aquaculture. Mussels are the key.
The Thing About Mussels
The thing about mussels is that they are easy and will grow just about anywhere, unlike most bivalves, which are often particular. Oysters need a bed—sand or mud will do. Clams require the same. Whelks and snails want room to roam, forage, or hunt. Even cockles and scallops can be a little fussy about what surface they’ll attach to. But a mussel? Give it just about anything even somewhat solid—a rock, a shard of coral, or a line of rope dropped into the sea—and it will take root. Or, not root: It will grow a beard, a mesh of silky filaments, threads of byssus, a fiber constructed of proteins and keratins that grows and fastens the mussel tight to its chosen perch.
That mussels are not simply easy but also wonderfully profitable first came to Cruver’s attention many years ago, in a roundabout way. He was reading about a company that cleaned oil rigs, which is something he likes to do–read about companies, especially if they are sort of off-kilter and niche, the type of company he might have started. Cruver, 73, has started quite a few, including one that installed some of the wind turbines outside of Palm Springs. “I’m not a scientist. I’m not even an environmentalist. I’m an entrepreneur,” Cruver is quick to say. He said this to me a few times, first over the phone, and again aboard the Enterprise, chugging out to see the mussel farm.
How Cruver had come to start his mussel concern had everything to do with that funny company he was reading about all those years ago, the one that scraped the undersea legs of oil rigs, cleaning them of their accumulated sea-growth every six months. Much of the growth was mussels, and the guy who owned the company had a nice little side business, selling the scraped off mussels, up to 500,000 pounds a year, all along the California coast, mostly around Santa Barbara. It was as profitable a venture as one was likely to find, and Cruver was intrigued.
“I went whoa, they’re selling that many? They’re growing that fast?” Cruver began to call around to various scientists, checking the numbers. And the numbers? They checked out.
The Ranch, six miles off the shore of Long Beach, Calif., is 100 acres, in federal waters, and right on the edge of the continental shelf, where nutrients—free and natural mussel feed—well up from the depths. His “building permit” for the Sea Ranch (which isn’t, of course, a building at all) is through the Army Corps of Engineers. The mussels grow on loops of rope, attached to lines that start 20 feet below the ocean’s surface that are anchored down to the sea bottom, several hundred feet below. Cruver estimates he could harvest nearly 50,000 pounds of crop per line every 12 months, on a rolling basis, so he’s harvesting year round. His initial spend has been a little more than $1 per pound, which he’s beginning to sell to a seafood distributor for $2.25 a pound, a profit of over 50%. His first harvest was in June last year, and he’s on track to have 100,000 pounds this year. Already, Cruver is talking about expansion—from 100 acres to 1,000 acres—and national distribution.
Before we’d embarked, Lindsey Cruver, Phil’s daughter, showed me around the labs where she tests the health and genetics of the mussels grown on the Ranch, so they could selectively breed the fastest growing and healthiest specimens. She also tests wild mussels against the farmed crop, and wild scallops—another bivalve Cruver is looking into farming. The wild samples were scraped from the oil rigs a few miles farther out to sea from the Sea Ranch site. She then showed me a cryopreservation lab–a series of blocky steel fridges and glass bottles–which is where she freezes the sperm, eggs, and mussel larvae for further testing, as well as for storage. The cryo lab was almost like a seed bank: a means of keeping mussel crop production consistent and on a more human market driven schedule when nature often had a way of veering off. Though a mussel is an animal, its existence is a lot closer to a plant than, say, a cow, which is why the Ranch runs a lot more like a farm.
On a global scale, aquaculture is fairly new, and the industry is developing quite quickly. In the past decade, farmed fish overtook wild catch in sheer amount produced and, in the last few years, more seafood was farmed than beef. Like cattle ranching, stockyards, and slaughterhouses, the dramatic ramp-up of farmed seafood has caused all manner of problems. There are environmental problems—masses of fish kept in small pens give off masses of waste—and labor problems—in much of the world, many aquaculture workers are paid close to nothing, or nothing at all. It is basically impossible to industrialize anything, particularly a food source, without introducing an imbalance to both the economy and the environment.
But farmed bivalves like mussels might be, if not entirely different, certainly a more hopeful and intriguing alternative. After all, their existence is a lot more like a plant: they are filter feeders and have no central nervous system. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, because farmed mussels aren’t fed anything, and the water isn’t “fertilized,” there is “no effluent concern”—no radical environmental imbalances that lead to sudden algal or jellyfish blooms, say.
Mussels And The Environment
Better still, farmed mussels can improve the water around them. The Seafood Watch report adds that “mussel farming has been shown to increase water quality at the farm site through removal of excess nutrients and phytoplankton.” Farmed mussels are a “best choice,” according to the report—the rare seafood (or any food) that’s nearly guilt-free. For both environmental and ethical reasons, you still may be better off not eating animals at all, but even some vegans make an exception for certain bivalves.
The bigger issue with farmed mussels is that most of them come from elsewhere, which is usually far away. And, because they have to travel some distance to arrive at our plate, the environmental costs are high, because it takes burning loads of carbon to get them to where you can eat them. The vast majority of the farmed mussels in America come from Canada, and most of those (over 80%) come from the waters off Prince Edward Island, where some 50 million pounds are harvested each year. Though Americans are eating more seafood than ever before (about 16 pounds per person, per year) it’s still a pretty small amount of the food from animals that we consume—we eat nearly twice as much cheese as we do seafood, for example. Of all seafood, shellfish is a fraction, of which lobster and crabs and oysters and clams dominate.
The farmed mussel industry in America is but a fraction of a fraction, just a few million pounds per year, though it’s growing quite quickly. A series of statistics Phil Cruver holds dear: That per capita consumption of mussels in the U.S. is a mere .15 pounds, while in Europe it’s about 5 pounds a person. In New Zealand—where farming mussels is a robust industry—it’s 33 pounds. If he could get California and its 40 million residents to consume mussels at something approaching the European rate, that’d be 200 million pounds of mussels, and he’d have a business that could net close to half a billion annually.
Thinking about all the different ways we get our food—the various systems and their costs (both environmental and economic)—is very tricky. But this is what Halley Froehlich, a researcher who focuses on global marine production and climate change at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, does all day. “What’s the difference between producing a cow, versus a mussel?” is a question she studies carefully and attempts to answer. “In the end, nothing is ever a zero—there are inputs, and there are outputs,” she told me. Unlike cows, or chickens, or salmon, or shrimp, or tilapia, or even some plants (palms, or oil from palms, in particular)—”bivalves are as close you can come to zero impact. Pretty damn close,” Froehlich told me.
She then listed off all the things that could go wrong while farming shellfish, things that have to do with growing a lot of the same species, and not only the same species, but a particularly genetically similar variety of the same species (a monoculture), in very close proximity, and very close to shore. Disease spreads more easily, or the farm-grown population can enter the wild and take over, which is what happened with farmed zebra mussels, which have taken over many lakes, including the Great Lakes. Offshore farming, though less common in the U.S., is quite possibly safer and better for all surrounding species. There isn’t simply more space, but fewer toeholds—or byssus holds, as the case may be. The genetically similar farmed mussels would have a much tougher time making their way into the wild population, suspended on rope miles out at sea, Froehlich explained.
Cruver certainly thought the open water provided greater opportunity. Out here, his crop grew rapidly, and no one seemed bent on disturbing it. But he was keenly aware of the marketing problem he faced for future expansion: he could grow all the mussels he wanted but shellfish loving Americans still prefer oysters or clams. “It’s all branding,” Cruver said. “We need Leonardo DiCaprio to eat a mussel pizza and talk about how devastating shrimp is to the environment. Then, we’d be set.” But this was a problem for another day, back on land.
As the Enterprise motored down the small channel outside Berth 58, I noticed a few gigantic and strangely shaped boats docked nearby. One was nearly square and seemed to be made of only concrete. Another had arms like an upturned claw crane from an arcade. A third featured, near its stern, a tall arching tent, concealing whatever was underneath. “That’s SpaceX,” Cruver said, nodding in the direction of the three strange ships. Then, he looked back across the channel. “Bob Ballard is here, too,” he nodded in the direction of the Nautilus, a ship the discoverer of the Titanic uses for undersea explorations.
Once we entered the open sea, Matt Grant, the 22-year-old manager of operations on the Ranch and captain of the Enterprise, put on some loud classic rock, and the small crew got to work. Below us, the two deckhands, Joey Prieto and Darin Boehm, began moving lines, checking pulleys, and sorting equipment. After a little more than an hour, we reached the patch of sea, marked only by buoys, where the mussels grew, where they’d first been dropped on lines wrapped in socks filled with mussel seed (fertilized mussel eggs.) Grant hopped out of his captain’s chair and joined Prieto and Boehm on the deck, where the trio began harvesting.
First, Grant hooked a small crane to the line that ran parallel to the ocean surface, 20 feet below, from which several more lines, the grow lines, filled with mussels, dropped another 50 feet into the depths. As each grow line was being hoisted up by the motorized crane, Prieto leaned way out over the water and carefully pulled and scooped and coerced the line filled with grown mussels closer and closer to the side of the Enterprise. Sometimes, sections of mussel-laden rope broke off and quickly disappeared into the water. Occasionally, nearly the whole heavy rope gave way. More often, Prieto expertly cradled the load toward the ship, and he and Grant moved the prize toward the mouth of a machine that stripped the line of its mussels. Boehm, still working the crane, then lowered the line. After an especially heavy, mussel-filled line made it successfully onboard and into the mouth of the stripping machine, Prieto and Grant yipped, shook hands, and cackled at the crop as it crackled and fell off the line.
Once stripped, the mussels traveled through a series of cleaning and sorting mechanisms and, finally, into a huge blue barrel that filled—first slowly, then all at once—with the shiny black bivalves. But now, standing on the deck in the patchy daylight, watching mussel after mussel fall into the barrel, where it’d soon be bundled and, later that day or the next, brought to market, I found myself hypnotized. The Enterprise slowly chugged and drifted alongside the row of undersea rope lines, the men worked, and Cruver, standing over the railing looking down upon his deck, quietly observed. Usually, he didn’t come out on the ship, but he tried to visit the Sea Ranch any chance he got. He might soon be growing enough mussel in California to begin elbowing out markets farther afield, like Prince Edward Island— “That’s 3,000 carbon-spewing airlifted miles away!” Cruver shouted over the harvesting machinery. “What’s not to love about this? It’s local, better than sustainable—regenerative! Now, I’m not a scientist but…” he trailed off beneath the roar of the engine, the crunch and whirr of the machines. But I knew where he was going.
Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.