On my return from Norway last August I spent a number of days on a side trip to the southern part of the Netherlands near the Belgian border, the primary area of mussel production.
The purpose of my trip was to visit with Mr. Cees Koole of Franken BV, one of our manufacturing partners, and to meet with Dr. Pauline Kamermans of the center for shellfish research (RIVO), who we have been assisting with a project to enhance larval collection.
Both Cees and Pauline had arranged separate side trips to observe the industry through their contacts, so I had a full schedule for the very short time there.
The more I travel the more I realize that no matter how much information you may have on a specific topic, when you actually observe and investigate what you are looking for, there is always a lot more to learn.
The mussel (shellfish) industry in the Netherlands was certainly no different, and the old adage "A smart person learns from their mistakes and a really smart person learns from the mistakes of others" seemed very true, as the climate for the business end of things within the industry, was certainly well advanced. As a matter of fact on my first morning in city of Goes, the international business news announced that the Netherlands had just taken over first place as the best country in the world in which to do business, a position that last year held by the United States. Upon observing their mussel industry, it was understandable why.
My very first encounter with the industry was at the hotel I stayed at. A very noticeable banner/sign hung outside the house restaurant announcing the start of the mussel festival. The festival was promoted by one of the major processors, to attract further consumer awareness a cross promotion contest was done with an automobile manufacturer with the winner receiving a prize of a new car. Every restaurant I visited in this district had a festival promotion on as well.
The Dutch take this business seriously, and treat it like a business. There was evidence of constant activity for brand and product awareness, most noticeable being that every company's trucks and trailers were brightly painted with pictures of product servings, and broadcasting that mussels are a good source of health and great to eat. Seafood retail outlets, including processing plant outlets, sold not just mussels but also special mussel cookware, spices, crackers and even shellfish matched wine a complete package.
A few years back the country's production was in the area of 100,000 tonnes - this from a land mass that is 2 ½ hours wide and 4 ½ hours long by train, with 16 million people. Keep in mind that only the western part is on the ocean. To put things in perspective, the North American total production is around 20,000 tonnes, with massive coastlines and 300 million people in the US and 30 million in Canada. It truly is a shame that we are not producing more, and that on top of that North American producers seemingly cannot work together like the Dutch. This deters market growth and the profitability of their own industry as a whole.
The majority of production in the Netherlands is done with bottom cultivation, however a small but growing segment is now done as hanging, or mid water culture on long lines. Interestingly enough, I was always led to believe that the bottom culture was being maintained due to the lower cost, however just the opposite was true with prices approximately 30% higher per unit than North American commodity prices. The fact that the industry works together from production through to marketing allows them to demand, and get, a higher price. This is because they are focused on what their objective is, and they do not allow themselves to be treated like commodity producers.
The method of bottom culture is not like it is here in North America, where natural beds are harvested in rotation. Grow-out time is just over two years with seed collected on the intertidal flats. After collection the seed is transported to specifically marked lease sites. 100 ft boats that both broadcast and dredge are very mechanized in such that most operate with only three people on board.
The boats, like the company vehicles, are spotless to the point that you cannot help but notice. No rust, no dirt, everyone is caught up in making sure that the image of quality is always at the forefront.
The mussel season for bottom cultivation runs from the end of July through to April. Typically with in the two year + grow-out cycle the animals are taken up and redeployed in different areas 2-3 times. This is a management system that has been developed over the years and works well, producing a quality product.
Each day there is a silent electronic auction of product, the boats harvest in the morning, sell their product at auction to the processing plans and then re-deploy or deliver in the afternoon. The delivery would be to one of the processing plants where they are held in a re-watering system to cleanse of sand and grit for approximately 48 hrs or are placed once again on a lease site until the plant requires the product for their customers.
The processing plants are large and well-mechanized and are located side by side a short distance from the auction house, though puts at the plant are enormous and in one hour exceed what many North American plants do in more than a day.
Mid water long line culture is relatively new in the Netherlands, there is however a newly formed long line association and the method of husbandry is growing.
Double long lines 600-700 meters long are chained to the shore, which was the method of choice at the farm, I visited.
20meter socks with 8-10 mm seed socked at 1kg per meter will yield between 7-10kg per meter in 12-14 months , half the time of bottom culture.
Farm gate price is approximately US$0.90 per pound. Interestingly enough, the price is lower than the bottom culture product even though quality and meat yields are higher. It was explained to me that this was caused by the bottom producers claiming that the mid water product was not as good, which when you consider the size and dominance of the marketplace is understandable defense attitude.
A very noticeable challenge that I observed, in comparison with the North American producers, is that of major tunicate infestation. Interestingly enough however rather than fight it, they have managed around it and have developed mechanized procedures that deal with it at harvest time.
The industry is not without its problems however, in that total production in recent years has been reduced to approximately 70,000 tonnes. The primary cause of this has been lack of seed, normally collected from intertidal flats. The cause of this was not necessarily lack of larval product, but influence on the government by environmentalists claiming that not enough seed was being left for waterfowl. Our work with the research institute, with advances in water larval (spat) collectors has been very successful and may hold the key to provide a cure for this issue.
The major market for their mussel's production in Belgium, where consumers devour a whopping 6.16 pounds per person per year. Total European production is in the area of 515,000 tonnes, so there is lots of competition out there. Consumption and quality product demands continue to keep the Dutch product at a higher price with an increasing market, because they approach it as a business, and understand what the customers, the actual people who eat the product, want.
There are still a number of advancements that can be made with long line technology that we suggested however it is this focus on the other end of the business that was so different than other countries that was so very interesting to observe.