Bearded Filter Feeders Are the Future of the Seafood Industry

Chilean sea bass became overfished after celebrity chefs and a famous scene in <i>Jurassic Park</i> placed them on the international food map. But mussels, an often overlooked sea creature, are one of the most sustainable seafood options that are...

Paul Greenberg

Photo by Isaac Wedin via Flickr

Seafood celebrities come and go but few have staying power. Chilean sea bass, after it was introduced to the world by a combination of celebrity chefs and a single line in the movie Jurassic Park, zoomed to the top of the list of fish everyone wanted to eat. But soon after, pirate fishing vessels plundered the Antarctic and overfished it in many parts of its range. Farmed Atlantic salmon took the world by storm only to have eco-conscious diners turn up their noses at it because the fish ate more pounds of fish than it generated and sometimes polluted marine environments in the process. And the whole lot of what we call "seafood" is, in general, spurned by Americans probably because it's just too damn expensive. We eat something like 200 pounds of landfood meats per capita per year and only about 15 pounds of seafood. This, in spite of the fact that everyone from the FDA to EPA are telling us to eat more seafood, especially seafood that is high in Omega3s.

But as we move into the meat of the 21st century, I believe there is one contender for a truly green, affordable and nutritious catch of the day. Farmed mussels. There I said it. It should be what's for dinner.

Here's why:

1.) They're good for you: mussels contain .7 grams of Omega3s per 100 gram portion. That's as high as the omega3 content as premier ocean fish like swordfish but with none of the things like mercury and PCBs that can often be found in big predatory fish.

2.) They're good for the environment. Mussels like all of the so-called "bivalves" (oysters, clams and the like) eat by filtering micro-algae out of the marine environment. In other words, they're making the water cleaner just by eating. Compare that with farmed salmon which require wild fish in their diets and you can see why mussels are a better choice.

3.) They're easy to grow. Mussels grow fast, faster than many finfish and faster than other bivalves like clams and oysters, clinging to ropes with their byssal threads (a.k.a. beards.). The less time it takes for a farmer to bring a product to market, the better it is for everybody. Furthermore, mussels are hardy. Unlike oysters which are often grown on the sea floor and can get buried by Sandy-like storms, mussels are suspended in elongated socks that hang above the bottom and are therefore relatively storm proof. Floating rafts of mussel socks also make great habitat for other marine species, further enhancing their green status.

4.) Because they're so easy to grow, they're really cheap. A pound of mussels generally runs $3-$4 a pound. True, a portion of what you pay for is inedible shell, but they're still a great deal. With the exception of maybe Chinese tilapia and Vietnamese pangasius catfish (usually the cheapest seafood in the supermarket) it's hard to find a piece of seafood for less than $10 per pound.

5.) They're actually pretty easy to cook and work in a wide range of cuisines. Mussels steam open in about half the time it takes to steam open a clam. And once you've got them out of the shell they take well to a number of recipes. They're great in Vietnamese preparations with coconut and lemongrass and they can also be paired with legumes in a recipe from the other side of the globe as in a sautè di cozze con purè di ceci from the great cookbook, Naples at Table.

Of course there is one issue with mussels—it's hard to be a locavore and eat them. The vast majority of the mussels in our markets are imported—usually from Canada or New Zealand. But when you think about it, this is something you can fix. Maybe if Americans finally took notice of how green, healthy and good mussels are, we might start growing more of them ourselves.

Paul Greenberg is the author of the New York Times bestseller Four Fish and the newly released American Catch.