Meet the shellfish producer who breeds enough mussels and lobsters to feed Cornwall three times over

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Gary Rawle’s Westcountry Mussels operation is the size of 70 football pitches, uses 300 miles of ropes and produces 1.5 million portions of moules marinières a year.

One Cornish entrepreneur has been transforming Britain’s shellfish industry almost singlehandedly with an aquaculture farm off Cornwall the size of 70 football pitches.

Gary Rawle operates Westcountry Mussels of Fowey, a shellfish breeding ground for enough mussels to feed the entire population of Cornwall three times over every year.

Not only does his business in St Austell Bay, just 1.5 miles out at sea from the quaint harbour of Charlestown, famously immortalised in the BBC series Poldark, produce enough mussels for 1.5m portions of moules marinières, but his pilot nursery has bred a staggering 25,000 lobsters.

For the self confessed ‘obsessed’ man, who ironically admits suffering from terrible seasickness, the Westcountry Mussels of Fowey aquaculture business and its 300 miles of ropes is just the beginning.

Gary is also overseeing another UK first – helping the Cornish Seaweed company trial growing plants on ropes at another one of his sites, farther west at Porthallow.

He said: “Fish stocks are dwindling and the only way to combat it is aquaculture. It will have a massive impact. The St Austell Bay site has been able to steal the crown from the Scots as far as quality mussels are concerned, now the first choice of top end wholesalers and chefs alike.

“Our water is so warm, around 10˚C in the winter and 18˚C in the summer, the mussels just don’t stop growing. It takes us about 12 months to grow what would take two to three years in Scotland.

“Mussels are considered to be the Holy Grail of aquaculture – there is no need to feed them, young mussels settle naturally on the ropes, they grow quickly and mussel farms form natural reefs, attracting other species into relatively unproductive areas.”

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), about 70% of the world’s fish population is fully used, overused, or in crisis – and people’s desire for high-protein seafoods shows no signs of abating.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has estimated that in 2030, 62% of the seafood we eat will need to be raised via aquaculture to tackle the supply and demand challenge. To further support the sustainability and viability of the shellfish industry for the future, Gary and his wife Marina have also opened up their site for use by a multitude of science and research organisations.

This includes the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Aberdeen University, the Shelleye Project and the Government’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas).

The Cornish entrepreneur added: “We are now helping other businesses to kick start aquaculture in the South West and would love to introduce more species into our site to stay at the cutting edge of what’s possible in our oceans.”

The National Lobster Hatchery (NLH) operates a network of containers for individual lobsters on Gary’s site, in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and Falmouth University. The project is called Lobster Grower 2 and is funded by Innovate UK, BBSRC and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

Carly Daniels, research and development manager for the Padstow-based National Lobster Hatchery (NLH), said: “The charity’s priority is to deliver a new, sustainable source of lobsters for enhancing natural stocks and this is a massive step forward in that.

“Normally the cost of land-based aquaculture programmes for lobsters is prohibitive because they need to be fed and systems need to constantly run and be tended to. However, this novel approach uses similar methods to mussel farming in that there is no need for feed inputs because the lobsters eat natural organisms that live in the water and on the rearing systems.

“We have already deployed over 25,000 juvenile lobsters from the NLH to the site, and we have six lines in the sea – there are tens of thousands more creatures down there.

“The NLH as a stock enhancement charity also has a massive opportunity to release thousands of these environmentally enriched, on grown lobsters into the wild at the end of the project. This project defines collaboration. Gary shows us how to farm the sea and we show him how to raise lobsters.

“It’s a win-win for both NLH and Westcountry Mussels of Fowey and could well be a road map for how new species could be developed in future with the help of all collaborative partners involved.”
Gary started his career working on a salmon and trout farm, which ran from the jetties of Fowey but closed when the water became too warm for the operation to be viable.

Together with Marina he set up his first mussel farm in the Fowey River in the late 1990s, but fluctuating water quality and restrictions on expansion prompted the couple to seek a site elsewhere.

The couple expanded onto a site at Truro Harbour and realised that ropes attracted higher quality mussels than those found in beds. The duo researched the Scottish industry and fine-tuned their mussel growing technique before deciding to move offshore.

Their site at St Austell Bay is owned by Crown Estates and when Gary first applied for permission he received scores of objections, some of which bordered on being far-fetched.

“People overlooking the bay thought there would be plastic sheeting everywhere,” he said. “One man even objected because he thought the farm might deter sailors from tacking, should a trans-international yacht race ever come to Cornwall.

“However when we applied to extend our site recently, we did not receive a single objection. It just shows that aquaculture can live alongside more traditional fisheries if it’s done right.

“To start the mussel farm we knew we had to be at the right place at the right time. Every mussel releases about 30 million baby mussels into the ocean and it usually only happens a couple of times a year. Of those, only 1% will find something to attach to and grow on in a safe place.

“We needed to create a safe habitat away from predators on the bottom. We did this by hanging ropes 10 metres long suspended from the surface in 20 metres of water, so they would never touch.

“We then collected as many as we could of the mussels left floating around the bay and encouraged them to the site.”
For Gary, the ‘at sea’ aquaculture method has also created a ‘pedigree’ mussel. Water quality is much higher at the St Austell Bay site than in estuaries, which fluctuate wildly with every passing storm.

This means consumers can enjoy a high quality product with a strong sense of ‘terroir’ attachment, a concept very much cherished by wine growers when talking about the soil and land where their vines are grown.

“The meats from mussels grown in the sea are huge, and the shells are thinner, which means customers get a plate of plump meats instead of thick, heavy shells,” said Gary. “For chefs, that means less time spent cleaning, as all our mussels are sold chef ready. We do the hard work cleaning them and leave the chefs to do what they do best.”

Already some of his mussels end up in some of the UK’s top restaurants, including Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU – tearing up the controversial Common Fisheries Policy – the businessman believes it is critical that the UK maintains a sustainable approach to fishing.
“Aquaculture has an important part to play in feeding the nation but it’s equally important we don’t all just ‘jump on the band wagon’ and do the same thing in bigger and bigger farms,” he said. “All that would achieve would be to cause a boom and bust economy as prices fall.

“What we need is people with fresh ideas who are willing to take a chance and be leaders, not followers, in terms of introducing new species.

“We are proud to have grown our business organically, as it has enabled us to make the mussels the best they possibly can be. I believe it is better to have 10 artisan farmers, all growing because they are producing really high-quality produce, rather than trying to make a quick buck.

“In the early days our business received £10,000 of EU money, which was more than Marina and I were making from the business a year at the time. We are really grateful for it as it turned out to be the catalyst for something special.

“At the time I couldn’t see what was in it for the EU, or how were they going to get their pound of flesh back. But fast forward 20 years, and we now spend hundreds of thousands of pounds wherever possible in the local economy.”

The bane of Gary’s life is algal blooms – when naturally occurring algae grow out of control; producing potentially toxic effects in people and animals. Ironically it’s the very clarity of the waters around the Cornish coast that allows the sun to shine through and sustain the troublesome blooms.

A large incident can stop mussel harvesting for weeks, during which time Gary still has to pay a team of 10 full-time employees.
The bane of Gary’s life is algal blooms – when naturally occurring algae grow out of control; producing potentially toxic effects in people and animals. Ironically it’s the very clarity of the waters around the Cornish coast that allows the sun to shine through and sustain the troublesome blooms.

A large incident can stop mussel harvesting for weeks, during which time Gary still has to pay a team of 10 full-time employees.
As if working around-the-clock in all weathers at sea wasn’t enough, Gary decided to replicate his working pattern on land, serving for 20 years as a retained firefighter while working on his venture.

He made the front pages of multiple national newspapers when he rescued a cat from a property hit by the Boscastle Floods and carried it out of the melee into the waiting arms of the RSPCA, with all the newspapers and cameras waiting for the next day’s headline.

He said: “Everyone needed that story.”

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