winter is coming

Summer is over

I am writing on a brisk Shetland autumn day, which anyone might mistake for a full-blown winter’s gale in more southerly climates.  As often as not up here, the weather snaps from summer to winter in one fell swoop and the summer seems very much behind us now.   Despite southern parts of Britain getting a final flourish of heat, we seem to be lined up for several weeks of gales and cool temperatures of 7 degrees or below.  So, I’m calling it - summer is over.

Unique shellfish

It is however the cold temperatures and cold sea water that make our shellfish unique.  So, getting into this part of the season has its benefits and it is one of the best times of the year for the mussels themselves. They have just had a long summer of warm days, plenty of plankton to eat to build up their meats and followed by the current cooler conditions for harvesting mean they should be getting to market in top condition right now.

winter is coming

Visitors

Despite the cooler conditions, we have had a few visitors to the sites lately with the first being the board of Food Standards Scotland making the trip north to find out more about how we farm.  We discussed their sampling programme and how that works to classify our areas and ensure plankton blooms over the summer cannot cause the shellfish to become unsafe to eat.  We also talked about the extra work and testing we do on every harvest, to make sure all the shellfish we harvest are safely farmed and sustainable.  It was a really useful day and was great they made the effort to come up and see us.

winter is coming

Fresh mussels for the Chefs

The following week we had a delegation from Seafood Scotland, who had invited a group of Chefs up from the UK Mainland to also get the chance to see what we do.  We were able to show them the farms and also the factory where Scottish Shellfish boxes up the mussels for the wholesale markets.  They were keen to get their hands on some shells and take them up to the local award-winning restaurant Frankie’s and try their own recipes with product still dripping with seawater.  They too seemed to enjoy the visit and hopefully went back fully inspired to use our shellfish in their daily menus.

winter is coming

Autumn harvesting

Moving through autumn we expect to mainly be harvesting, getting the sites battened down for the rest of the winter and planning for next year’s spring spat input.  You can follow Shetland Mussels on twitter for more regular updates of farm happenings @ShetlandMussels

Last time I wrote we were facing bad weather and trying to get our workboat painted and back in the sea.  I can happily report than the interim period has seen some excellent weather up here in Shetland and progress has been much easier.  Sun is always nice but what we needed was less wind to work quickly and luckily we have had a fair bit of both calm weather and sunshine.
The workboat painting is done and the boat is now back in action.  The photos below show the before and after.  Maybe we should do a workboat makeover programme sometime but it certainly feels good to have her smartened up.
She will be out of the water again soon to have an extension put in the middle as we plan to add four metres to the boat in September.  As we have grown the farm, the boat is struggling to meet the demands put on her so this will be a big help.  I will hopefully have pictures of that later in the year.

 new mussel site

New mussel site

We quickly put her back to work to install a complete new site on the east side of Shetland at Dury Voe.  This involved laying 880m of headlines, 12 anchors and individually tying on 3000 dropper nets to (hopefully) catch lots of spat on.  We completed this job yesterday and so now we can only wait to see if we get any small mussels settle.  It is certainly not guaranteed and it is a significant cost sometimes putting in ropes that catch no spat at all.  I guess that's why they call it 'fishing' not 'catching' - but it’s not the easiest way to run a business
As I mentioned in my last blog the hatchery project is progressing well and some initial mussels have been selected and spawned.  In my next blog I would hope to have a better update and perhaps even some news on our first hand reared spat but it’s still early days.  If it goes well, we could have a much more controlled way to produce the baby mussels in the future, and that would be very welcome.
One of my co-members of Scottish Shellfish is David Niven who operates up in Unst (UK’s most northern isle of all) and the strong tidal conditions up there mean that he cannot catch enough spat on his ropes to fill his farm.  The mussels don’t seem to have enough time to settle on the ropes and probably get carried away in the tide too quickly.  As an Unst man he is not likely to give up that easily and so has been working with other farmers for a number of years in the cooperative to catch spat on their sites and transfer it to Unst. In the last couple of weeks, he has been coming down to our farm to take away some mid-sized shells for further fattening up on his sites in Unst.  Today we loaded 3.5 tonnes of mussels (see photo) which are heading up to Unst now on a ferry and will be back in the sea by tea time tonight.  With the good flow of water in Unst they will be full sized and ready to eat by Christmas.
These are two examples of how we can work as a cooperative to play to our strengths, in this case through sharing spat catching/rearing resources we can help all our farmers to maximise our potential and meet the future demand for Scottish Mussels.

 boat-before  boat-after

Boat before paint

Boat after paint

A local saying in Shetland is “never cast a cloot till da mont o May is oot” and for those of you who don’t know what a cloot is – it refers to clothing and is an offering of wisdom suggesting it is not wise in to get too summery with your wardrobe choices till June. Well if the weather recently has been anything to go by I would certainly agree with this advice.
Wind, rain, more wind and some snow has marked the last few weeks and I should know this was always going to be the case as soon as we lifted out our workboat to clean and paint a few weeks ago.  Progress has thus been slow due to the weather delays but as I write - the forecast for the coming week is looking more promising so we hope to get the boat back in the water soon.
There is certainly plenty of work for the boat in the planner to be getting on with.  We have been harvesting plenty of mussels recently with our other boat as always, but this is also the season to get new ropes into the sea to catch the juvenile mussels, and we always aim to get this done late spring and early summer.  Our marine biology is a little behind our mainland Scotland colleagues, given we are so much further north, but time marches on very quickly and once the sea temperatures start to accelerate we need to be ready.
This year we will be putting around 30,000 ropes to sea to collect the small mussels.  These go to our most sheltered sites which give us the best chance of getting good settlement of mussels.  It is not an exact science however and for various reasons some years the spat collection is not as good as we would like.  This is a big worry for us as we need mussels to make our farm operate.
This year for the first time we will also be trialling a totally new method of spat collection with the beginning of the Scottish Shellfish Hatchery Stepping Stone Project here in Shetland.  Scottish Shellfish along with experts at NAFC will be using a hatchery to breed juvenile mussels to put out to our sites throughout the summer.
If successful it would give us a new source of mussels to grow on our farms.  But it is early days and there are more questions than answers at this stage so we will just have to see how it goes but exciting times none the less.
In the meantime we just need to focus on meeting our biological deadlines so if we could just get enough dry days to get this boat back in the water, we could then launch her and then get on with the 30,000 ropes we need to get in the sea.  As ever we are totally tied to nature in this business but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

View our timelapse video below.

Happy New Year to everyone and here is hoping for a good shellfish growing year ahead.

Right now January is currently giving us its usual mix of short working days (daylight 0830 - 1530 right now) and very wild and windy weather.  Despite being all set to harvest various days over the festive period we have had half of them when the ferry from Shetland to the mainland has had to be cancelled due to storms.

This is a 12 hour trip through the North Sea which at this time of year is a challenging passage to make even for large ships.  Luckily for our customers, SSMG members farm all over Scotland and we were able to harvest from some of our West Coast of Scotland farms to cover the orders.

We have had some limited storm damage to deal with due to the strong winds but nothing more serious than a navigational marker getting carried away (never to be seen again).  I can tell you it’s not easy to sleep when the wind is rattling the windows with a good force 10 or 11 blowing and knowing all the mussel lines are taking a hammering but we have heavy kit to cope with it and it seems to have held out well so far this winter.

But soon the days will lengthen again and we will be able to focus on some of our spring tasks.  We will need to be ready to get our spat (baby mussel) collector ropes out in the spring and we hope to have a good settlement come the end of the summer.  It is not uncommon however for this to be a little fickle and often the mussels do not attach to our ropes or we may get other problems such as settlements of other marine organisms like sea squirts or seaweed.  This makes it difficult to keep the farm efficient and has been a constant problem for mussel farmers since mussel farming began.

With a view to tackling this issue we have been working on a project to see if we can begin to breed mussels in a controlled hatchery environment.  Two years ago we began looking at how this might be done and we now have a project about to begin at the local Fisheries College here in Shetland.  We have been well supported in this venture by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, who are funding the two year project to test technologies here in Shetland. This may offer us a commercial solution to producing spat to then grow on our sites around Scotland.

So an exciting new idea to consider as we begin 2016 but still the more routine farming tasks need to be done in the meantime - so for now we just need some more settled weather - maybe a nice force 7 would do.....

As a mussel farmer one of the most important jobs after catching enough wild spat (mussel larvae) on our ropes in the spring is to ensure we give them enough space to grow and thrive.

As a cooperative we are a group of farmers and recently we have been helping a neighbouring farm to thin down some of his 2014 crop of spat which was much too dense on the ropes after an especially great settlement last year.  After a year the ropes were groaning with over 6000 small mussels per metre and so needed a little more space so as to enable them to access enough food and nutrients from the water in the tidal flows.

We took two of our boats to his site and set about stripping, de-clumping and then re-seeding the mussels back onto new rope he had just imported from New Zealand.   We had a daunting 96 km of rope to fill and at the start of the job we wondered if we would have enough mussels to complete the job.  But the initial dropper samples had been accurate and we managed to thin the mussels down by almost six times onto the new rope.

How do we manage to get them onto new rope I hear you ask? Well that’s a good question and we have a machine to help us with that job.  It is a hopper, belt and measuring wheel arranged to dispense the special growing rope with a covering of mussels which are held in place by cotton socking. This socking will biodegrade over the next few weeks and give the mussels just enough time to throw out some new bysses (threads) to hold onto the ropes themselves.

When we come back next year to harvest, the ropes will be again groaning with weight (we hope) but instead of being just 25mm long they will be well over 60mm each and full of meat ready for market.