BY HARRY ANDERSON
Special to the Record
Ian Jefferds steps carefully from the skiff onto one of the mussel farm platforms his family has operated for 37 years. It’s a sunny, picture-postcard morning in August on Penn Cove, with Mount Baker shimmering in the distance and baby seals lazily reclining on platforms nearby. But Jefferds isn’t smiling. He’s worried.
He pulls one of the hundreds of platform lines out of the water. By now, those lines are usually crowded with seed mussels that have attached themselves to the lines during the first spawning season in June. But that initial seeding didn’t happen this year. The Deep Sea disaster in mid-May seems to have disturbed the natural process.
Jefferds knows that if the “second seed” that normally occurs in late summer doesn’t happen, his business might lose some or all of its 2013 harvest of Penn Cove mussels, worth tens of millions of dollars. He holds the line in his hand; dozens of tiny seed mussels are visible and seem to be attaching themselves to the line.
“It looks pretty good,” he says, with a look of relief. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
That optimism paid off. A few days ago Jefferds said he’s now satisfied that a decent “second seed” has occurred, which assures a good crop of Penn Cove mussels next summer. But he said the loss of the first seed means that next summer’s harvesting will be delayed by three months — meaning that the company must stretch its 2012 crop until then. The company also still has not recovered the loss of some business from large customers who ordered mussels from other suppliers last summer when the local harvest was disrupted.
Disrupted harvests this summer and concerns over next year’s crop are understandable, given what Jefferds and his Penn Cove Shellfish company have been through since the Deep Sea, a derelict 128-foot Alaskan crab trawler, burned and sank last May and leaked at least 1,400 of the estimated 4,500 gallons of diesel fuel aboard into the water that supports both the Jefferds’ mussel farm and all forms of aquatic life in Penn Cove.
When the Deep Sea caught fire the night of May 12, Jefferds, general manager of Penn Cove Shellfish, didn’t realize how big the threat would be.
“I thought eventually they’d get the fire out and we’d be closed a day or two. Then they’d tow it away and that would be that,” he said. Instead, his business was closed for a month. At the time, he estimated that the closure was costing Penn Cove Shellfish $50,000 a day in lost harvest. Today, he’s still calculating the total cost.
Once the mussel farm resumed operations in mid-June, it became apparent that the diesel spill had upset the initial seeding, which at minimum means that Jefferds’ 2013 harvest of local mussels may be delayed at least two months.
“After the diesel spill, there was a ‘down-welling’ effect caused by tidal action, and that took some of the diesel down as far as four or five feet below the surface,” he said. “The government lab reported that our growing mussels on the lines were able to get rid of it, but the down-welling seems to have upset the ability of the young seed mussels to attach to our lines, exactly when that naturally happens in June.”
Those few days in May are burned in Jefferds’ memory, but like any farmer he doesn’t stop long to think about the past. He has a harvest to worry about — this year’s and next.
Penn Cove Shellfish is the nation’s largest commercial mussel farm, harvesting 1.5 to 2 million pounds of the distinctive mollusks from Penn Cove each year and shipping them as far as New York, Miami, Singapore and Thailand.
“Penn Cove Shellfish has a global reach and has established a reputation that is absolutely impeccable,” said Sherry Wyatt, marketing manager for Island County Tourism. “When I traveled to New York to speak about our region, the high profile attribute most identified with us was Penn Cove mussels. Some knew about whales, Whidbey Naval Air Station or Deception Pass, but everyone seemed to have heard of Penn Cove mussels.”
In the early years, it wasn’t easy finding buyers for Penn Cove mussels. Most Americans had never eaten mussels. They were a considered a delicacy eaten in Asia and France. When they first tried to sell them in places like Pike Place Market in Seattle, “a lot of guys thought we were selling bait,” he said. Then came their big break.
Seattle’s best French restaurant in the late 1970s was Le Tastevin, operated by two well-known chefs, Emile Ninaud and Jacques Boiroux. They spotted the mussels in the market, bought some and put them on their menu.
Not long thereafter, Emmett Watson, the legendary columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Times, wrote a column in which the two French chefs declared that the mussels from “Coop-veel” were the best they’d ever tasted — better even than those in their native France. Soon, other chefs got on the bandwagon and the fame of the local mussels began to grow.
Today, Penn Cove Shellfish grows two types of mussels. The species native to Penn Cove and which naturally attaches to lines on the local platforms is Mytillus trossolus. Its meat is cream-colored and it typically grows to a harvest size of two or three inches. The other species farmed locally is Mytillus galloprovincialis, commonly known as the Mediterranean mussel, which typically grows to a harvest size of about four inches. The meat of the females is apricot-colored.
The Mediterranean mussels harvested by Penn Cove Shellfish begin life in the world’s largest shellfish hatchery in Quilcene. Once the young mussels are seeded on lines, they are transported to Penn Cove to grow to maturity.
The Quilcene hatchery is owned by Coast Seafoods of South Bend, Wash., which in 1996 acquired a 50 percent interest in Penn Cove Shellfish. The Jefferds family continues to own the other 50 percent and manages the company as a stand-alone operation.
“We created the joint venture with Coast Seafoods to get access to its shellfish hatchery in Quilcene in order to grow the Mediterranean mussels and to be able distribute some of their other products, including Kumamoto oysters and Manila clams,” Jefferds said.
The company now employs about 65, some working at the Quilcene hatchery and others working at Everest Marine & Equipment, the company’s boat-building and repair operation in Burlington.
But the preponderance of the employees — as many as 50 — work in Coupeville, either on the platforms or at the company’s expansive new warehouse and distribution center off Sherman Road. Its total employment ranks it as Island County’s 16th largest private employer, according to the Island County Economic Development Council.
Jefferds estimates that 75 percent of his 2013 harvest is threatened by loss of the initial seeding last June. If he loses much of his Penn Cove mussel harvest, he will be heavily dependent on the Mediterranean mussels hatched at the Quilcene hatchery. And if his harvest is diminished next year, he knows that strong competitors, especially Canadian mussel farmers from Prince Edward Island, can easily fill any void in the market. Prince Edward Island is by far North America’s largest mussel producer, harvesting more than 35 million pounds a year.
He is currently preparing a claim to recover some of his Deep Sea losses through the National Pollution Funds Center, an agency of the Coast Guard funded through a tax on oil products. But, even if the claim is successful, he would be able to recover only the profit lost from harvesting that didn’t happen during the Deep Sea fire and sinking.
One thing he deeply appreciates, however, is how much the local community has supported the mussel farm throughout the Deep Sea affair.
“We’re lucky to be able to farm here because we’re able to grow a good crop in a nice area that’s dependent on clean water,” Jefferds said. “I think when this happened, everybody realized how important clean water is to our operation, and it probably caused some reflection on a lot of people’s part about how important it is to their own interests as well. We’re all in the same boat. We remain grateful for all those who supported us during the spill crisis and want to express our thanks again.”
Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard added: “When you have an environmentally sensitive operation like Penn Cove Shellfish that has operated so responsibly for so many years, it makes all of us more sensitive to the need to protect our resources. When something like the Deep Sea happens, it tells us how fragile our environment is and how easy it is to lose something like Penn Cove Shellfish that has become so much a part of us.”