The edible mussel is an adaptable bivalve mollusc, occurring in many coastal locations, ranging from mid-shore level down to 20 metres or more below low-water mark.
It is a filter feeder and can pump large amounts of water; a mussel bed therefore also acts as a large biological filter within an estuary. The mussel’s ability to attach, with the aid of strong elastic and adhesive threads, known as ‘byssus’ (meaning ‘beard’), to various natural or man-made surfaces, makes them highly suitable for cultivation by a variety of methods.
Mussels have been harvested on the Teign from early times, either as a cheap source of food or as bait for fishermen. One particular mussel farm on the river can be traced back almost a thousand years.
Born into a family of musselmen, Syd Hook recalled in 2006: ’There were mussel beds all up the river. It would take 10 men working on a sprat swain, and to keep the crew together, the owner would have mussels up the river to keep them from catching the sprats.’ Nowadays there are just two or three mussel men remaining.
The main method of mussel cultivation in Devon is bottom cultivation, accounting for 95% of all cultivated mussels offered for sale. Small (seed) mussels are transplanted from naturally occurring beds, where survival rates are poor, onto ‘lays’ in more favourable areas. These areas have a lower stocking density, improved water flow and better feeding prospects. Larger mussels are re-laid for up to a year, to enable the flesh quality to improve (fattening), before marketing. For best results the mussels need to be re-laid as low in the intertidal one as possible to allow maximum time submerged and thus as much filter-feeding as possible. A mussel seed of 25mm shell length may require 1 to 3 years to reach minimum marketable size of 50mm in England.
The harvesting season is between September and March, depending on the condition of the mussels. The season is governed by the spawning cycle of mussels, which affects meat quality and yield. Rising spring water temperatures initiate spawning. After spawning the flesh on the mussel is thin, watery and unappetising. During the summer, the mussel feeds well and fattens up reaching peak condition during the autumn.
Harvesting methods vary from the traditional method of hand-picking, to raking or forking the mussels into trailers, to dredges towed by boats. On the Teign seine boats were once used for collecting mussels – they were fitted with sails to get to the mussel beds. Now the farming is done from a mussel boat.
The above information has been taken from various sources including: