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Mussels – A quality harvest

As we get further away from the shore and find ourselves about one-and-a-half miles from the Sagres coast, they begin to appear: dozens of bright orange buoys mark the spot. What hides below the sea’s surface can be considered a treasure – for foodies, at least.
Taking up an area of 44 hectares, the aquaculture project’s floating lines hold the cables below, which can reach a depth of 40 metres. Latching on to the cables that stretch to the bottom of the sea are hundreds of mussels, almost resembling strings of intertwined black pearls.
The company in charge of maintaining such an oddly appealing underwater spectacle and taking these much-appreciated bivalves to the tables of several European countries – Portugal will soon be included on this list – is Finisterra, the brainchild of the Sagres-based English biologist John Icely and his two Portuguese business partners.
Founded in 2010, the company has been operating the open-ocean aquaculture business since 2011, an investment aided by funding from the European Union. With John providing his knowledge as a biologist and his partners working on the management side, the company has so far been exporting its high-quality mussels to countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Belgium, with John Icely saying that the national market will be “the next step for the company”.
Although the assembled open-ocean infrastructure can be used to farm any kind of bivalve, including the much sought-after oyster, the owners of Finisterra decided to farm only mussels for now.
“We would like to expand to different cultures, because farming a single species increases the level of risk of the business,” said the biologist, adding that they are as yet unable to be precise about the amount of shellfish harvested so far.
As for the farming method, John says that mussels don’t need much to thrive. “They filter water and all we need to do is seed the mussels [by placing smaller specimens in the hanging cables, to which they latch on naturally]. Then, we have to allow them to grow up to a certain size until we can perform a process which is known as ‘desdobra’ in Portuguese, which means separating them by size in different ropes,” he explained. Such procedure is necessary, he adds, because they grow at different rhythms. In fact, depending on weather conditions and water temperature, the mussels can take between six to nine months to reach a marketable size.
The next step is to harvest them with the help of the company’s boat, which features a clever mechanical system that pulls the cables so that the company’s workers – seven in total – can collect the bivalves.
Despite the fact that mussel farming in itself is not an overly complicated process, Finisterra’s biologist says that “this is a task that requires a lot of work and dedication, and involves a great deal of maintenance”.
Known as good water-quality indicators because they get nutrients by filtering it, mussels do not dwell in polluted areas.
The richness of Sagres’ waters and its low pollution levels – thanks to the “little tourism and few nearby factories that can do damage,” said John – are two of the reasons why these bivalves thrive on the Atlantic coast, and also why the company founders decided to base their firm here. According to Finisterra, the result is high-quality mussels, which are easy to export as Portugal – and mainly Sagres – is well-known for the quality of its shellfish.
By Ana Tavares
Photo: Joana Alcock