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Underwater farm thrives on the West Coast

In many of South Africa’s smaller coastal communities, people’s lives have long been intertwined with the local fisheries. For centuries, many of these small-town coastal families have worked for fishing companies or subsisted on fishing. But the decline of fish stocks due to overfishing, illegal fishing and the changing climate over the years has left many of these communities vulnerable as jobs and money have dwindled. This is especially evident in the many once-thriving fishing towns along South Africa’s West Coast – the likes of Lambert’s Bay, Langebaan, Paternoster and Saldanha. Fortunately for a few residents of Saldanha, less than a two-hour drive from the tourism hub of Cape Town, the growth of at-sea mussel farming has brought much-needed economic relief.

Rope-grown mussel
© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
About 1-4 km off the coast of Saldanha in South Africa, Atlantic Royal has flourishing underwater farms that provide about 10 tons of mussels a day during harvesting.
Saldanha Bay – an excellent spot for mussel farming

The seaside town of Saldanha, with its natural deep harbour, is one of the oldest fishing villages in South Africa. Home to over 21 000 people, it is known for its steel industry and seafood processing. It is also a popular spot for game fishers, water sport enthusiasts and yachting fraternities.

This pristine coastal area has the largest natural bay in the country and one of the most nutritious sea environments in the world – with little pollution, and good water quality and circulation. The cold Benguela ocean current and windy conditions along this part of the coast form nutrient-rich plankton waters which are perfect for filter feeders – from gigantic baleen whales to small sea creatures like mussels and barnacles.

With this abundant food supply for filter-feeding mussels, it makes sense why vertical rope-grown mussel farms exist here in South Africa.

And these fairly recently introduced mussel farms, and processing factories are providing much-needed employment opportunities for local people too.

I was fortunate to visit one of these innovative West Coast farms, at Atlantic Royal. I went with my WWF colleague Bokamoso Lebepe who coordinates the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Fish for Good project.

Bokamoso works with five South African fisheries, providing them with support and guidance towards improving their fishing practices and restoring healthy fish stocks in the ocean. The rope-grown mussel fishery, of which Atlantic Royal is a part, is one of the fisheries that Fish for Good focuses on.

Fish for Good
© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
Bokamoso Lebepe (left), WWF’s Fisheries Improvement Programme Coordinator with Barend Stander (right), Operations Manager at Atlantic Royal.
Growing mussels on ropes

Before visiting the farm, I had imagined it to be situated just a few metres from the shore. But, when Barend Stander (Operations Manager at Atlantic Royal) took us on a boat to   see the farm up close, I realised that it was actually much further than I had assumed.

A 15-minute boat ride, about 4km from Saldanha harbour, is where some of Atlantic Royal’s underwater farms are flourishing.

The first impression is a little underwhelming. The only clues to farming activity here are multiple equi-distant floating buoys that keep the mussel ropes afloat. Clearly, the magic happens beneath the surface…

From 2-10 metres below the surface, hundreds of fuzzy-looking ropes remain suspended beneath the ocean swell, bundled with millions of firmly attached live mussels.

Mussel farm
© WWF South Africa / Bokamoso Lebepe
The continuous rope consists of approximately 10 kg of mussels per metre – mostly Mediterranean mussels.

Two types are farmed by Atlantic Royal: the indigenous black mussel and the invasive Mediterranean mussel. The latter grows much faster and spreads quicker than the local variety, which makes good business sense.

Atlantic Royal
© Atlantic Royal
Mussels take about 12 months to grow from a larval stage to a marketable size. Pictured here are market-sized Mediterranean mussels.
Know your mussel

The two species of mussels farmed here look similar at first glance, but if you look closely, you can spot the difference. Both species appear to be black, but the Mediterranean mussel is almost brown while the local one is dark black. Also, the flesh of the Mediterranean mussel is orange in females and white in males, while with the local ones, the male looks greyish and female looks  black.

Although mussels usually attach themselves on rocks, any hard surface with good quality water and nutritious plankton-rich food is just as suitable. The ropes used in vertical farming create a substrate for them to settle on, and the mussels are left to feed and grow naturally.

This method of mussel farming has minimal impact on the environment as opposed to intensive fish farming.

 “Although growing mussels on ropes is considered more sustainable than fish farming, the ropes can potentially entangle with marine mammals and sea birds. The Fish for Good project provides guidance to the mussel fishery, helping them minimise the risks associated with the entanglement of marine creatures. We also encourage mussel farmers to have proper monitoring, reporting and disentanglement procedures of animals that live amongst the mussel farms,” says Bokamoso.

So, how are mussels harvested?

That’s what I was eager to see when we visited the Atlantic Royal, but since it was in the middle of the spawning season, harvesting was put on hold.

“Mussels spawn by releasing eggs and sperm in the water. During this time, their body flesh also shrinks. Since the reproductive organs are what make up most of the mussel’s body – which is the part that you and I consume when we eat mussels – we would basically be harvesting ‘empty’ shells,” explains Barend.

Under normal conditions, Barend and his team harvest between Sunday and Friday.

“The staff detach the mussels from the ropes using a specialised mussel harvesting machine called a declumper. Harvested mussels are then loaded onto a mussel grader where they are sorted by size,” adds Barend.

Grading mussels
© Atlantic Royal
Using a mussel grader, the mussels are sorted into big (market-sized), and small undersized mussels to be reconnected to an underwater rope.

This sounds like a long process, but Barend says it only takes 2-3 hours to collect 10 tons of mussels every day.

As one can imagine, not all mussels are the same size. While the market-sized mussels are put aside for processing, the small ones are put into sock-like cotton nets with a mussel rope running through its centre and then put back underwater. Within hours, the undersized mussels reattach themselves to the rope and the cotton net rotted away within a week.
The market-sized mussels are sent to a factory in Saldanha, where they are processed into whole shell or half-shell and then vacuum-packed.

Mussel processing
© Atlantic Royal
Atlantic Royal can processes about 16 tons of mussels in an 8-hour shift, both for export and the local market.
A chance to see the invisible

As the harvesting was put on hold for spawning season, we weren’t expecting to see any mussels at all that day. But, much to our delight, we got to see them after all – strands of mussel clusters that coexist under the sea!

We were lucky to witness the maintenance staff in action that day. They pulled the rope floats and the heavy mussel ropes to the surface for cleaning – scraping and spraying off algae and ensuring the mussel culture equipment was in good order.
If not regularly monitored, broken ropes can drift away and algae growth on the floats and buoys can sink the ropes to the bottom – causing possible harm to other creatures and the marine ecosystem.

Mussel ropes
© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
Atlantic Royal staff clean mussel ropes and floats, to ensure they are in good order.
Tackling social and environmental issues

Responsible mussel farming does not only benefit life beneath the ocean waters, but also people whose lives are intertwined with the marine world, and the Saldanha community is a good example of this.

With a high rate of unemployment in South Africa, together with the threats facing our oceans, mussel farming seems to be doing a good job in addressing both issues – providing employment and employing sustainable fishing practices.

Atlantic Royal, established in 2017, employs about 130 people and provides mentorship to 11 new small mussel-producing businesses from previously disadvantaged communities.

Through one of its aquaculture development initiatives, South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has dedicated 10-15 hectares of the aquaculture development zone to these small businesses, to farm and sell their mussel harvest, under Atlantic Royal’s mentorship and/or supply agreements.

This is proving to be an effective way to uplift and empower small enterprises with environmental knowledge and hands-on skills to grow a sustainable mussel farming industry, while also providing them with the opportunity to generate a steady income.

Although mussel farming is still growing, its contribution to the South African fishing sector and to improving people’s livelihoods is evident and instils hope for a future where people continue to benefit from nature.

Mussel harvesters
© Atlantic Royal
About 20 people work on the harvesting boats, 106 in the processing factory, and the rest are office based.
Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.

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