Food & Drink
There’s something rather odd about the tides in the Menai Strait. The sea rushes in from the southwest and then, as the tide swells around Anglesey, it begins to fill the Strait from the top end, reversing the tidal flow.
It’s a quirk that appeals to a marine scientist like James Wilson, and also the mussels he cultivates on the seabed, which effectively get their dinner delivered twice as often as any mussel should reasonably expect.
The Menai Strait now produces 10,000 tonnes of mussels a year – that’s around half the entire UK output. “It’s a fantastic place for mussels,” says James. “They’re really effective filter-feeding animals, and in the Menai Strait there’s an inexhaustible amount of food for them. But they have to work quite hard for it, so the meat tends to be leaner, not so dense and thick, sort of a bit like endurance athletes of the bivalve world. I’m biased, but I think it’s tastier, too.”
Biased perhaps, but also with an impeccable CV. James has a degree in Marine Science and a masters in Fisheries Economics. He’s worked around the world in the seafood trade. His grandfather ran a seafood cafe on Anglesey, while his father went to sea at 16.
“I can remember picking crabs out of wooden crates when I was three or four,” says James. “It’s in my blood.” He’s been in the mussel business since the mid 1990s. He now runs a company called Deep Dock, one of four local operations that have joined forces under the banner of Bangor Mussel Producers Ltd.
A lot of commercial mussels are grown on ropes that dangle peaceably in lochs and sheltered inlets. But not Menai mussels. They live on the seabed in the altogether feistier waters of the Menai Strait and Anglesey’s northeast coast. The result is that Welsh mussels have bigger, well, muscles. And they’re cleverer than their rope-grown cousins. Well, kind of…
“A mussel doesn’t have a brain per se, but it can change its behaviour quite significantly,” says James. “Ropegrown mussels grow quickly, but the shell’s pretty thin, and they don’t always have a huge amount of flavour. Because ours are grown on the seabed they grow more slowly and have to protect themselves from predators like starfish, whelks and crabs. And that encourages them to develop a harder shell.”
This has benefits at harvest time, when the mussels are gathered and transported to continental Europe, which is where 95% of Menai mussels are destined for their final union with parsley, garlic and (ideally) a glass of Muscadet.
“It’s a hardy animal that can cope well with the stressors associated with harvesting and processing, so they have a longer shelf life,” says James.
Menai’s mussel producers are ‘enhanced fisheries’. They gather tiny wild ‘seed’ mussels from the seabed, then plant them in marine fields known as ‘lays’. Around three years later, the mussels are ready to harvest.
It’s all run under strict environmental controls: Menai Mussel Producers were the first enhanced fishery to win MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification in 2010. “You have to demonstrate that the stocks you’re exploiting are healthy, that they’re managed in an effective way, and your environmental impact is controlled,” says James.
When it comes to proving your environmental squeakycleanness, it helps if you have some heavy academic artillery on your side, firing a steady barrage of cold, hard scientific data. Rather handily, the neighbouring Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences happens to be one of Europe’s top marine research schools. In the late 1990s, they asked if the mussel sector could help one of their PhD students who (again, handily) was studying the ecology of mussels in the Menai Strait.
“She made some interesting suggestions as to how we operate,” says James. “Her ideas made a lot of sense, and we took them on board. It was a good result, so the next time the university came knocking, we said yes.”
Since then Menai Mussel Producers have become heavily involved in scientific research, helping with – and benefiting from – dozens of PhDs and research projects: “It allows SMEs like us to dip in and engage in research in a meaningful way, but without having to bear the total cost,” says James. “It works for the university because they get PhDs on their books, and it works for us because we can involve ourselves in research. And we can both tap into collaborative funding streams.”
The result is a steady flow of scientific data that James, as a scientist himself, can apply to his business. And if the research points to better ways of doing things, whether it’s increasing productivity or lessening environmental impact, then they’ll change the way they work.
The exchange of knowledge is a two-way street. “We can also encourage the university to look at things differently,” he says. “There’s a big opportunity for them to see the commercial aspects of the marine world.”
Their collaboration has also helped them to fight political battles. They recently staved off legislation that would have had a profound economic impact across the entire European shellfish sector, says James: “We’d done a piece of work about marine pathogens. Using this research, we managed to completely alter the pathway of a piece of European regulation at the eleventh hour, which is unheard of. Bangor Mussel Producers and Bangor University – we did that, using our relationship with the Welsh Government’s European Office. We all worked together and achieved something good, and I’m really proud of that.”
As for the future, it would be inaccurate to suggest that James, as a major exporter to Europe, is a fan of Brexit. “We’ll find a way around it,” he says. “There’ll be a transition period while we reorientate ourselves, but life goes on.”
In some respects, Wales as a country is uniquely poised to deal with any external hand-grenades that are lobbed at us, says James: “We have great imagination, and a fantastic legislative framework which is unique in the UK, Europe and sometimes globally, about how we want to live, how we want future generations to live, and what we need to do now. Let’s use this framework.”
We can all play our part, too. At the moment, only 5% of Menai’s magnificent mussels end up on UK plates. So you know what to do. Eat more mussels. Just make sure they’re Menai mussels.