According to mussel lore, more than seven hundred years ago, shipwrecked Irishman Patrick Walton was the first to savor the tasty mollusks when he found them growing on nets he had placed in tidal flats to catch sea birds. Mussel farmer Tollef Olson says that raft farming -- the harvesting technique he and his partner, Craig Tanner, use -- dates almost as far back as Walton's discovery. Every morning, the two set out to their rafts, which are anchored at Casco Bay, Maine, to harvest this great regional delicacy.
Unlike the more common bottom-culture technique, raft farming raises young mussels, called seeds, to maturity on lines cast into the ocean and anchored to a raft. When the lines are first cast, the seeds are bound to them by a seeding machine that wraps a biodegradable cotton net around the mussels and the line. The net disintegrates in about six to eight weeks, by which time the mussels have anchored themselves in place by producing sticky threads called byssus. In twelve to eighteen months, the mature mussels are ready to be harvested.
Raft farming protects the mussels against predators such as starfish and green crabs and keeps mollusks at the top of the water column, a prime feeding spot. The result, says Tollef, is "a lot more meat weight and a lot less shell weight, and a much more consistent meat; the mussels tend to be very plump and sweet."
Once harvested, the mussels are taken to Great Eastern Mussel Farms, a processing plant in Tenants Harbor, Maine. Currently, the plant sells raft-farmed mussels to only a few distributors since the quantity is limited; Tollef and Craig are the only raft farmers on the Eastern Seaboard, and their three rafts produce about 300,000 pounds of mussels per year.
Great Eastern sales manager Terry Callery hopes that figure will only increase as more raft farms become established. He says the mussel industry has grown exponentially in recent years, increasing the demand for better-quality mussels. "Years ago, people wouldn't even try a mussel," he says. "Now, instead of eating clams, people are eating mussels."