The blue mussel winter harvest: A labour of love on ice

(NC)—While many of us like to enjoy a batch of steamed fresh blue mussels on a chilly winter evening, few of us know of the lengths that Atlantic Canadian mussel farmers go to in bringing them to market.

From the spring until fall, mussels are simply lifted out of the water by the farmers by pulling up the ropes that are suspended in the ocean. But in the winter it’s not quite as straightforward.

Up until the time of the harvest, nature has done most of the work in growing the mussel. The farmer just puts out his mussel socks and lets nature do the rest. But someone has to harvest this shellfish, and that’s a job for the hardiest of men and women.

Facing freezing temperatures, the farmers head out looking like an arctic convoy, bundled up and wearing polarized glasses to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. A GPS leads the farmer to brightly–coloured poles in the ice that mark the mussel farm underneath. It’s easy to get disoriented when you’re a few kilometres offshore in the all white environment of the snow–covered ocean.

At the farm a member of the crew cuts holes in the ice for a diver who goes in the water and connects the mussel ropes to a winch that will then haul them out. The ice here can be four feet deep and won’t melt until late April.

As the crew lift and handle the mussel lines being retrieved from the water, they are freezing cold from the wind. Ten degrees below freezing on the ocean feels much more extreme than on land with the biting cold wind that comes off the ice. With wind–burned skin and numb fingers, the crew work quickly, transferring the mussels to the insulated containers that will be brought to the processing plant later that day where they’ll get ready for market.

It’s a remarkable journey that takes the blue mussel from a farm under four feet of ice to crushed ice in a supermarket waiting to be brought home with you for dinner…and all within a couple of days. Strong Atlantic Canadian families have prospered for decades in this often harsh climate thanks to the sustainable nature of the mussel farming industry, and those who enjoy feasting on the easy–to–prepare delicious and nutritious natural wonder of the ocean.

For information on Atlantic Canadian farmed blue mussels, their “green” sustainable growth and harvest, and for recipes packed with good nutrition, visit the Mussel Industry Council website. Also featured on the website is a chance to win a trip for two to San Francisco.

Billi Bi Soup

Number of Servings: 4

Preparation Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes


• 2 lb (1 kg) fresh cultured blue mussels

• 2 shallots, coarsely chopped

• 2 small onions, quartered

• 2 sprigs parsley

• 1 pinch cayenne pepper

• 1 cup (250 ml) dry white wine

• 2 tbsp (30 ml) butter

• 1/2 bay leaf

• 1/2 tsp (2 ml) thyme

• 2 cup (500 ml) 35% cream

• 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

• 1 pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


1. Stir the fresh blue mussels in a colander while rinsing in tap water. Set aside for a few minutes. Tap any that are open and discard those that don’t close in response to the tap.

2. Place mussels in a large pot with the shallots, onion, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, wine, butter, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer 5–10 minutes, or until the fresh blue mussels have opened. Reserve mussels for another use, or remove them from shells to use as a garnish.

3. Strain the liquid through a double thickness of cheesecloth.

4. Bring liquid to a boil, and add cream.

5. Return to boil, and remove from heat.

Photo © eddyfish