Myles Blood-Smyth always remembers the day when, aged seven, he discovered a dead blue shark trapped in some abandoned fishing gear while holidaying on the west coast of Ireland. Thrilled at his find, he cut out its jaws and took the trophy home to his bemused mother. Fishing and treasure hunting have always been twin passions for Myles. But as a lad, he had little idea that one day he’d be combining both – and making a living out of it.
Today, Myles is one of a dozen-or-so fishermen in the south-west who catch and purify mussels. He loves the lifestyle, the salty sea air and being his own boss. But just as exciting is the fact that he never quite knows how much shiny black booty he will tease from the muddy bed of the Exe Estuary, in Devon, from year to year.
“Farming mussels is like being a treasure hunter,” says Myles, who made a living whelking in Wales until 1996, when the Sea Empress oil tanker disaster struck and before that, worked as a thatcher. “There’s always an element of surprise. One year we might find 100 tonnes, the next we could get 600. That’s definitely part of the fun.”
The hunt starts in June, when mussel larvae (seeds) appear. Myles’ eyes are peeled for changes in the colour of the sands at low tide, a tell-tale sign of the arrival of thousands of seeds that have fattened on a feast of plankton. Divers, sailors and fishermen report sightings to him. The mussel treasure could arrive anywhere – but sadly it’s rarely inside the Exe Estuary, whose foreshore Myles leases from the river’s owner Lord Devon.
“Last year, for the first time, we actually had a bed of seed that conveniently planted itself in the estuary,” he says. “That was really lucky.” Usually the seeds establish themselves in the open sea, so Myles has to hoover them up with a specially devised gadget and move them to the calmer, warmer waters of the estuary where they have a better chance of survival and where he can monitor their progress during their next two years of growth.
“We see our job as choreographing nature,” says Myles. “We place the seed where it can flourish. We rescue it from itself; if it were left in the high seas it would get smashed. Once the mussels are settled into their new home, all they need is warmth and sunshine: that creates algae, whose nutrients they feed on.”
Unlike many other mussel farmers, Myles grows his mussels on the estuary bed – bottom culture as it’s known in the trade – not on ropes. This, he says, produces robust, thick-shelled mussels that are easier to clean. “All a rope-grown mussel has to do is to hang on to its rope, so it doesn’t develop a thick shell,” he says. “Bed-grown ones have to fight off enemies such as shore crabs, so develop far stronger adductor muscles – the muscles that hold the shells together – and thicker shells. This means the mussels are stronger and healthier and have a longer shelf-life.”
It’s the wildlife that flourishes around the mussels that makes small-scale mussel farming so sustainable. The molluscs create a rich ecosystem that benefits the river and those living on or in it.
“The sea bed starts off as a desert and ends up like a rainforest of incredible diversity,” says Myles. “You find freshwater eels, worms, crabs, scorpion fish and sponges. This biodiversity is very important in a place such as the River Exe, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve. Life down there is easily as exciting as on a coral reef.”
To be environmentally friendly, it is also crucial that the mussels are raised from their muddy beds with the least possible impact. So dredges are out. Instead, Myles has developed an elevator that uses powerful water jets to lift the molluscs without disturbing their habitat. “I believe mussel farming should be carbon negative. It should harness nature, not destroy it,” he says.
Joining Myles and his boys on their barge on a radiant summer evening, I watch hundreds of glistening mussels shunt up a metal conveyor belt into vast canvas containers. They are then fed into another machine that grades them for size – too small and they are returned to the sea to grow more, too large and they are discarded as the meat risks being grainy. The good ones, sized 60-70mm, are stacked into large plastic crates, ready to be taken ashore for purifying and cleaning.
Once ashore, the mussels spend 42 hours in salt water purification tanks, where they are also zapped with ultra-violet light, which kills any bacteria. The mussels are then scrubbed and hand cleaned before being packed and sent off to some of the finest restaurants in the country. Chefs and their clientele rave about Myles’ mussels, and last year he was named a finalist in the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. But he’s sad that the general public still appears wary of mussels, despite the fact that they are far cheaper than most other fish or meat, so they can make a perfect recession-busting meal.
Part of the problem, he believes, may be the fear of food poisoning. Mussels suck their way through 50 litres of seawater every day, extracting nutrition by using their flesh as filters. This means they are prone to taking toxins on board. But controls are now extremely stringent and the chances of contamination from the Exe, rated as one of Britain’s cleanest rivers, are, says Myles, infinitesimal.
And forget about only eating mussels during months containing an R. “That’s only because in the summer months you get more toxic algae. In the Exe we don’t get that, so we can supply mussels pretty much all year round, although the best months are July to March.”
Another myth Myles would like to sink is that shellfish are high in fat or raise blood cholesterol. Recent research has shown that not only are mussels low in both of these but they are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as well as in nutrients like selenium, iodine and vitamin B12. A 400g (14oz) bowlful of mussels provides you with your entire recommended weekly intake of omega-3.
So as you sit down to a steaming bowl of mussels, you can also savour the fact that you are eating one of the most sustainable and nutritious fish in British waters. It’s what keeps Myles going out to sea to seek more black treasure, whatever the weather.