FALMOUTH — Bangs Island Mussels is hoping to expand its aquaculture operation off Clapboard Island and has applied to the state for a new 20-year lease for 11 acres in Casco Bay.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources will hold a public hearing on the proposal at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at Town Hall. The commissioner then has 120 days to issue a decision.
The family owned company would continue to grow mussels, as well as kelp and scallops, according to Matthew Moretti, president of Wild Ocean Aquaculture, LLC, which conducts business as Bangs Island Mussels.
The proposed lease will be evaluated under specific criteria, the Department of Marine Resources said in a press release, including its effect on shore access, navigation, fishing and any ecologically significant plants and animals.
Copies of the Bangs Island Mussels lease application are available on the department’s website at www.maine.gov/dmr.
Moretti said Bangs Island Mussels now operates four, 40-by-40-foot permanently anchored mussel rafts in just less than 2 acres of water off Clapboard Island, and another six rafts in 2 acres off Bangs Island, which is near Chebeague.
With a total of 11 acres near Clapboard Island, Moretti said his company could operate up to 20 rafts, but said it’s likely that at peak production Bangs Island Mussels would have only 10 rafts in that location.
The proposed lease site is at least 1,000 feet from the low tide mark, he added, so there is plenty of seaway for both commercial fishing and recreational boating.
“Our business is based on a profound respect for the ocean … utilizing sustainable aquaculture practices” the company website states. “We call ourselves farmers, but really we’re facilitators, working with nature to create an ideal place for mussels to grow.”
In addition to its two aquaculture sites, Bangs Island Mussels also leases space on a Portland wharf where it processes and stores the mussels, has an office and keeps its boats.
Moretti said Bangs Island Mussels just completed a “record year,” producing 260,000 pounds of mussels, which were mostly sold to local seafood wholesalers. He said about half the crop stayed in Maine and the other half went out of state.
He said there is increasing demand for mussels, which is “fantastic,” but that means “the lease expansion is an important step for us to remain viable. We want to keep growing the company so we need more area.”
Moretti also said the company “is at the point where we want to scale up our kelp operations” and it’s also ready to begin experimenting with growing scallops, as well.
Bangs Island Mussels has four full-time and six part-time employees, but with the new lease Moretti hopes to make all those positions full-time and perhaps add new positions over the next five years or so.
Moretti said the population of wild mussels, especially in Southern Maine, is in decline, but “the base of our crop is still wild mussel seed,” which the company harvests at special times of the year.
He said it takes about a year and a half for a mussel to grow from a seed to a harvestable size. Moretti said mussels are filter feeders “so location is very important and a lot of spots (in Casco Bay) wouldn’t work at all.”
He said the waters off Clapboard Island are ideal in terms of depth, water currents, temperature, bottom type and overall flow.
He founded Wild Ocean Aquaculture with his father, Gary, in 2010 and then purchased Bangs Island Mussels from its founder, Tollef Olsen, a few years later.
“My father and I were originally attracted to mussel farming because it was the most environmentally responsible method of food production that we had ever heard of,” Moretti said.
Seven years ago the duo began growing kelp and mussels together. Not surprisingly, Moretti is a fan of both and said the best way to eat mussels is steaming them in their own juices, which he pronounced “delicious.”
Bangs Island Mussels hopes to expand its current operation off Clapboard Island in Falmouth to 11 acres.
Bangs Island Mussels starts its aquaculture operation by harvesting wild mussel seed, then growing them on ropes attached to permanently anchored rafts.
Bangs Island Mussels just completed a banner year, producing 260,000 pounds of the bivalve.