Mussels: the mountains of the future

19 May 2023

They call themselves farmers of the sea, and grow mussels, clams, oysters and other shellfish around La Spezia, Liguria.

We speak to one of these mussel farmers, Paolo Varrella, who’ll be presenting a Taste Workshop at Slow Fish as well as speaking at the Fisher’s Platform talks.

Oyster and mussel farming is a traditional livelihood in La Spezia.

First came the oysters

Varrella explains: “Before the Unification of Italy the French were in Portovenere and the English in Lerici. In La Spezia there was no work at sea at all; this only began after unification, as a simple harvest, or gathering activity.”

The first experiences with organized farming began later, thanks to the arrival of experienced workers from Taranto, who were already famous for their mussel farming skills.

In area around La Spezia, oyster farming was established first, and later supplanted by mussel farming. Today, as Varrella recounts, “there are about 90 companies that raise muscles, 30 of which are also engaged in oyster farming.” A traditional profession, but also contemporary, and one that continues to attract young people: “It is a job that creates a lot of interest. Not just in terms of the economics. What attracts is the sense of independence, and being able to work outdoors, in a magnificent natural setting, far from the chaos.”

The Taste Workshop – Coast to Coast: The slopes of the Cinque Terre – June 1 at 3.30 p.m.

Sloping terraces, dry walls and the sea: this is the landscape in the Cinque Terre in eastern Liguria. A land of heroic agriculture, where struggle is the norm. At this Taste Workshop we’ll meet Paolo Varrella, oyster and mussel grower, and Samuele Heydi Bonanini, builder and custodian of the drywalls, winemaker and beekeeper at Possa. We’ll taste raw oysters, an oyster sandwich, stuffed mussels and mussel soup, paired with wines by Possa.

Book your place now!

Long hot summers

But all that glitters is not gold. Indeed, there are many challenges from the mussel farmers, the latest being Sparus aurata, bettwen know as gilt-head bream. Wild bream were not a problem, but farmed bream are. As Varrella explains: “The farmed gilt-head bream pose a serious threat. They’re concentrated in small space, and many of them escape or are deliberately released into the sea, and they then settle in our Gulf, which is an ideal habitat for them, with calm waters and plenty of food.”

The fact is that the damage to the mussel farmers is extensive. “Last year the bream raided 70 percent of our muscles, with about 3000 tons lost.”

Then there is climate change, which is another factor in these bream raids. Warming water is, combined with the typical opportunism of these fish, one of the factors driving their spread in the Gulf of La Spezia.

Fishers’ Platform – Cooperation, fishing tourism and mussel farming: what future for the Ligurian sea? – June 1, at 5 p.m.

In Italy, as elsewhere, fishers are often organized into cooperatives. In Liguria there are various institutions, from the Mussel Farmers’ Cooperative of La Spezia to the Noli Artisanal Fishers.

Sign up and take part!

Mussels as environmental sentinels

We have talked about bees as environmental guardians on many occasions here at Slow Food. In the sea, shellfish perform a similar function. “Mussels and oysters are filter-feeding organisms, and are therefore very accurate in registering changes in the ecosystem. That is why it is important to study their interactions with the environment. We do an ancient craft, it is true, but we are equipping ourselves with contemporary monitoring tools. Together with others (the ENEA, CNR and INGV, Lerici Municipality, Scuola di Mare S. Teresa) we have developed the Santa Teresa Smart Bay project, a natural laboratory for research into sustainable tourism and shellfish farming. The data collected allow us to make observations of the environment over time, and gives us important insights into how to counter the effects of climate change.”

The mussel farmers have been observing the effects of climate change in the Gulf for many years already. “We first started seeing the reality of the climate crisis about 20 years ago, and this is because we have our hands in the water 365 days a year. The temperature of the sea has shot up over that time.” Like the mussels, those who grow them are also sentinels of the changes taking place. The support of technology is crucial in order to have key parameters measured in real time, also with regards to levels of pollution, and to be able to respond accordingly.

Shellfish as carbon stores

Shellfish are not merely useful as “instruments” for monitoring changes in the environment. They also sequester carbon in their shells in the form of calcium carbonate. “They are carbon sinks, and they will be the minerals of the distant future.”

That means these mussel farms are permanently removing atmospheric carbon, as Paolo concludes: “The carbon dioxide that ends up in the shells of our oysters and mussels will one day, in a few millions years, be mineral deposits in future mountain ranges.”

We won’t be around to see it, but the idea of today’s mussels as mineral deposits in the mountains of the future is a comforting one. In the meantime, the short-term benefits of mussel farming for their ecosystems are enough to convince us that this form of aquaculture is aligned with the values of Slow Fish.

by Silvia Ceriani,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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