When retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot Peter Jefferds settled on Penn Cove with plans to harvest mussels 41 years ago, everyone thought he was crazy. What people didn’t know was that the Jefferds family business would become the oldest and largest mussel farm in the country.
“Everybody thought he was crazy,” acknowledged Tim Jones, Operations Manager for Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville. “Prior to that, no one in the U.S. was really eating mussels or shellfish. It was more of a European thing.”
That began to change over time, especially as Jefferds enlisted the aid of a well-known Seattle chef to prepare some dishes with Penn Cove mussels. The tasty molluscs began to grow in popularity and today Penn Cove Shellfish, which entered into a joint venture with Coast Seafoods Company in 1996, ships 2.5 million pounds of mussels each year. They also produce Mediterranean mussels, Manila Clams and 27 varieties of oysters. One of the keys to the company’s success is its commitment to freshness.
“The mussels we harvest today are on somebody’s lunch plate in Seattle and on someone’s dinner plate in New York tomorrow,” said Jones. “We go from farm to plate in less than 24 hours.”
Over the years, many have discovered not only the flavor but the health benefits of shellfish. The company just finished it’s 30th Penn Cove MusselFest last weekend, where pounds and pounds of mussels are donated to local chefs.
“It’s high in Omega-3’s, zinc and phosphorous,” said Jones. “And it’s fresh, local seafood produced right here in Coupeville.”
Penn Cove Mussels, now a branded name, are among the best in the world. They are slightly smaller in size, but have more meat and thinner shells than other varieties. Their meat is sweeter and more tender with a nice texture, all of which set them apart and have made them truly special in the shellfish industry.
“Our mussels are sweet, probably because the salinity is lower,” Jones said. “And you get more bang for your buck. Our meat yields are huge. Customers get more meat weight than shell. Plus our meat is white, which looks kind of neat on the plate.”
Geography, as much as anything else, is behind the beauty of the Penn Cove Mussel. First, Penn Cove, because of its shape and location, gets a large influx of fresh water from the Skagit and the Stillaguamish Rivers, which bring in tons of nutrients from the Cascade Mountains. Then, because Penn Cove is located in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, it gets more sunshine. The combination of nutrient rich water and sunshine produces plenty of plankton, on which mussels and other sea life feed.
Every spring the mussels spawn. Crews from Penn Cove Shellfish use collector lines to catch the larvae. These lines are attached to 42 of the 44 rafts floating in Penn Cove. (The other two rafts are used for wet storage of clams, oysters and Mediterranean mussels.) The larvae will develop shells in about three weeks and then attach themselves to the collector lines and begin to feed.
“We give them the substrate (the lines), and Mother Nature does the rest,” Jones said.
The mussels are thinned about three months later, leaving between 150 to 200 mussels per foot of line. These 20-foot lines hang beneath the rafts and the mussels are left alone to mature, a process that takes about 14 months.
“The lines turn into what are essentially floating reefs,” Jones explained. “There are a lot of salmon fry, smelt and perch that hang out around them because it provides a lot of food and protection for them.”
When the lines are pulled up for harvest, most of the other sea life stays behind in the water.
“Except for the barnacles,” Jones said. “I hate barnacles.”
Because of the number of lines that can hang from each raft, workers at Penn Cove Shellfish are able to harvest both Penn Cove and Mediterranean Mussels five days a week all year round. Mediterranean Mussels are spawned at Coast Seafood’s hatchery in Quilcene, where they are treated to become “triploids,” meaning they cannot spawn and are allowed to grow out in Penn Cove without threatening the Penn Cove Mussels. Growing both varieties helps the year-round harvesting process.
In all, Penn Cove Shellfish employs 85 people and is a stable force for the Coupeville economy.
“We do generate a lot of revenue for the local economy,” Jones said. “Those are full time, local jobs.”
While proud of the economic boost the company provides, Jones said providing a fresh, sustainable product for their customers is the driving force of Penn Cove Shellfish. He also likes the fact that the process is “pretty green.”
“The cove is important to us. We consider ourselves stewards of the cove,” he said. “We want to make sure nothing moves into this water that could contaminate it. If we keep it clean, this is a resource that will go on for decades to come.”
Penn Cove Shellfish provides mussels to the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association each year for MusselFest, held last weekend. The company also hosts a mussel, beer and wine tent with entertainment each year during the festival. All proceeds are donated to the Coupeville Boys and Girls Club and fund two science scholarships given out annually at Coupeville High School.
More information on Penn Cove Shellfish can be found by clicking here.