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American Mussel Harvesters help drive economy

January 20, 2012

Photo By Shaun Kirby Mussels at American Mussel Harvesters travel down the conveyor belt on their way to being processed and sold to thousands of local consumers at many restaurants and markets in Rhode Island, such as Belmont Market in Wakefield.

QUONSET — Greg Silkes, Logistics Manager & Sales Team Member at American Mussel Harvesters, Inc., remembers asking one of his clients in Nebraska why he sold seafood in Nebraska, the middle of nowhere. The son of Bill Silkes, owner of American Mussel Harvesters, Greg has grown up around the ocean and seen the benefits of locally grown and caught seafood, but wondered how someone from the windswept Great Plains region could enjoy quality product lifted from an ocean so far away.

“We had a customer who opened up a seafood market in Omaha, and everyone out there thought he was crazy,” said Greg Silkes. “He used to drive down to the Gulf of Mexico to get some of his product. Now, thirty years later, he has multiple businesses and a great promotional and marketing plan.”

The businessman in Nebraska has served as a model of perseverance and success for emerging seafood markets, and American Mussel Harvesters, a shellfish-processing and marketing business in Quonset, has embarked on bringing fresh seafood to the plates of local Rhode Islanders in much the same manner.

American Mussel Harvesters began in 2000 as Salt Water Farms, LLC under the direction of Bill Silkes, and employs the latest advances and data in aquaculture science to grow and harvest mussels. The original lease was for 15 acres of ocean about 50 feet deep in Narragansett Bay’s East Passage. The first planting of 5,000 oyster seeds were placed into what are called ‘socks,’ or tubular meshes in which the bivalves can mature while they hang on a long-line in the water.

Today, Bill Silkes and American Mussel Harvesters haul their product onto two fishing boats year-round, and have cultivated a business which processes and sells seafood all over the country.

“In the past 12 years, we have grown to having 20 acres of aquaculture and 45 long-lines,” said Greg. “In the summer of 2010, we brought 3,000 pounds of mussels to market and we ship to places all over the country, such as Texas and California.”

Bill and Greg Silkes have always been focused, however in promoting American Mussel Harvesters’ products to a local audience.

“We have brought several small crops to market over the last couple of years and they were well received by local chefs and farmers markets,” said Bill. “We are expanding the operation and have attracted over $500,000 in financial support from Rhode Island Sea Grant, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Aquaculture, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).”

As Rhode Island moves towards a more sustainable food economy, many environmental and economic organizations have emphasized the importance of local initiatives such as Rhody Fresh and the Rhode Island Seafood Collaborative in providing fresh and recognizable foodstuffs.

“One issue in the United States is that 80 percent of our seafood is imported from places like Prince Edward Island and New Zealand,” said Greg. “In 2004, global mussel production was at 1.8 million metric tons, worth $1 billion U.S. annually.”

“Another 80 percent of the seafood caught in the United States is exported to other countries, so our thinking is, why do we import when we have the potential to grow the seafood market domestically in New England?” he added.

With costs of overseas food production and importation rising, businesses such as American Mussel Harvesters can take hold of local markets back from large corporations that may have significant financial resources, but rarely feel the pulse of the local community’s desires.

“If you buy shrimp at the supermarket from Vietnam, it has been frozen and stored there,” said Greg. “Then you have to package it and ship it from Vietnam. Everybody has to make money on every step there, and those costs are ultimately passed onto the consumer.”

American Mussel Harvesters realizes the need for locally-operated seafood businesses which not only provide a sense of personal security and ownership for consumers regarding their food, but also to create a healthier economic climate, most importantly jobs.

“We are starting to put more and more product out, and the plan is to grow that and produce mussels on a larger scale,” said Greg. “We are invested in creating jobs for local fishermen and farmers. Programs like the Rhode Island Seafood Collaborative are all about working together, and that is the level we are at now.”

“Prince Edward Island brings in $107 million in a year from 1500 people, and those are all outsourced jobs,” he added. “Why can’t we keep those jobs here?”

American Mussel Harvesters also stress the importance of environmental sustainability as they manage their business, and is careful not to over-exhaust the natural resources which Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound provide.

“Everything we take out of the ocean, we put right back into the environment,” said Greg. “Narragansett Bay has a tidal flush which occurs every day, so the water we grow the mussels in is clean. We also process the bivalves in seawater which is taken from the Bay. We’ve had mussels grow to market size in one to two years, whereas it may take seven years in a larger producing market like Prince Edward Island.”

“Businesses in Maine and Massachusetts are doing the same things we are here, which is fantastic,” he added. “If our aquaculture practices are sustainable today, future generations will be able to live off of what we have created.”

Sustainability also carries a large public education component, and basic public knowledge of seafood production and marketing is key to the success of local businesses.

“Education is important to us, and the more people understand about their food, the more likely they are to try something different,” said Greg. “People want to know where the oysters come from and how it is grown. They are in tune to that.”

A tour of the operations at American Mussel Harvesters reveals a vibrant community of family-oriented workers and a sense that the product that is grown and harvested will make the local community a better place to live. Inside the company’s offices, a note hangs above Silkes desk which reads velis et remis, Latin for ‘with sails and oars.’

“That is what we are about, with sails and oars, working together,” said Greg.

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