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Updated: May 24, 2022

Casco Bay mussel farm doubles production in two years

person on raft pulling rope Courtesy / Maine Aquaculture Association Matthew Moretti, co-owner of Bangs Island Mussels in Casco Bay, said the operation doubled production during the past two years. He’s seen here on a raft from which lines are suspended to grow mussels.

A planned expansion helped Bangs Island Mussels, a Casco Bay mussel farm, double production over the past two years, with further growth expected for 2022.

The farm, founded in 1999, grows mussels on ropes suspended from rafts above the ocean floor. The product, sold nationally, has been featured in outlets such as Martha Stewart Living and the New York Times. Father-and-son Gary and Matthew Moretti bought the operation in 2010 and began growing kelp, sold to Biddeford food producer Atlantic Sea Farms, alongside the mussels using a system called “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture.” 

The pandemic has driven demand higher than ever. We asked Matt Moretti about the operation’s expansion. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: Tell us how integrated multi-trophic aquaculture works?

Matt Moretti: We started farming kelp over 10 years ago — that was the beginning of the kelp industry in the U.S. and in Maine. It fits well with what we’re doing with mussels and helps sustain the environment. Now we have a commercial-scale kelp farm along with our commercial mussel farm.

The cool part is the synthesis between the two species. They grow next to each other on the same lease footprint and they benefit each other and the environment around them. Kelp sucks carbon dioxide out of the water, along with things like excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Mussels, which are filter feeders, have the same effect. So they help improve water quality.

person on boat pulling in kelp
Courtesy / Maine Aquaculture Association
Bangs Island Mussels grows kelp near its mussel rafts, in a system called “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture” that’s mutually beneficial for each species and the environment.

MB: What are you seeing for market demand?

MM: Demand is higher than ever. I’ve never seen it like this. Mussels are flying off the shelf. Going into the pandemic, our biggest year was 300,000 pounds. Last year, we did 600,000 pounds. 

MB: How did you accommodate the increase?

MM: Part of that was based on the expansion we’ve undertaken. It takes a long time to plan and implement an expansion, because of the time it takes for mussels to grow. You don’t start seeing the results of an expansion, in terms of sales, for two years after you plant additional seed. We had been planning to expand for years and went into the expansion while we were in the midst of the pandemic. So the reasons we were able to double production was because we were implementing that expansion. 

MB: What did the expansion look like?

MM: Before 2019, we had 10 rafts. Now we have 26. Over the course of the pandemic we doubled our crew and added benefits, including two weeks of paid time off and full health care coverage, to help retain people. A few months ago, we added dental insurance.

MB: How did you get to the point of being able to offer benefits to your employees?

MM: Before 2019, we had incremental success. But every hard-earned step of our growth wasn’t having the impact on the business that we wanted. For example, we wanted to be able to give health insurance to our employees. But we hadn’t built the business to the point where everyone was being fully supported by us with benefits and PTO. We just weren’t able to do it because we hadn’t grown the business to the size that could support that. 

So we realized we had to make a bigger jump. We formulated a plan, took over another mussel farm in Casco Bay, added eight new rafts, and invested in a bunch of new processing equipment that could handle more volume. Now our size gives us the ability to offer health insurance, benefits, and full-time jobs instead of part-time jobs. 

MB: How did you finance the expansion?

MM: Bank loans through Bangor Savings Bank. And as a family-owned company, all of the profit we generate goes back into the business. That’s allowed us to do slow but consistent growth. 

MB: What’s your projection for 2022?
: Probably 650,000 pounds. But it’s a little difficult to predict. A big challenge growing mussels in Casco Bay is red tide — a natural event that happens every spring — and climate change with warming waters and warming air. 

MB: How many employees do you have now?

MM: About 15 full-time, year-round. We’re looking to hire and have three open positions.

MB: Other initiatives?

MM: We’ve been working with five or six small Maine oyster farm operations that don’t have access to trucking. We’re helping them move product out-of-state. The mussel farming community in Maine is so small that we all really collaborate. It’s a nice little community — it feels like a family. 

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May 24, 2022

None better! Bangs Island mussels have become a staple for Friday nights in our house - steamed in chardonnay, butter and lemon then served with Rosemont sourdough bread. Ohhh boy. Try them for yourself.

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