Published On: Wed, Oct 30th, 2019

SHETLAND MUSSELS: Working with nature is a win-win for premium shellfish producer | City & Business | Finance

Supermarket chain Waitrose, a major supporter of sustainable UK small businesses and responsibly sourced fish, is a key client of the second-generation family firm. Owned by brothers Michael and Richard Tait, that has 38 sites, primarily around the isles and four on the Scottish mainland. Last year it harvested 2,000 tons of mussels from the bountiful waters of the north Atlantic, bringing in a £1.35 million turnover.

The potential is for double that however and “we expect to get to 4,000 tons in the next few years, turn over £2 million and grow our hard-working team from 15 to 24 people,” predicts Michael who is also the current chairman of co-operative Scottish Shellfish whose members share resources, accreditations, best practice and a state-of-the factory near Glasgow.

Astute planning, care for the natural world, patience and collaboration have all played their part in the prosperity Shetland Mussels is now seeing. 

Originally a salmon farming enterprise started by father Lollie in 1987, it explored the mussel option first as an experiment then switched to it full-time in 2010 “because it fitted with our small business model. It’s proved to be a product that is healthy and well received,” explains Michael.

Growing from one site it has expanded through acquisition, developed others following permission from The Crown Estate which owns the seabed and conversion of salmon sites.

The eco-friendly way the business farms, with no use of chemicals or destructive dredging of the seabed, is central to its operation.  

Come springtime spat – the mussels in their microscopic early stages, drift on the currents looking for a home.

“If they don’t find one they will either get eaten or perish. We offer them custom-made ropes to live on as they grow for three years, feeding off the plankton the tides bring in. The reefs they create naturally never touch the seabed, so there is never a problem of mussels with grit or mud in them,” says Michael. 

“Our cool waters account for the slow growth but also the top quality available all year round, two aspects very attractive to Waitrose.

“Once harvested the mussels go to the factory for grading, inspection, then packing and pan cooking at home or a restaurant or complete in a vacuum pack with a sauce for an easy meal.  

“The sauce versions are becoming increasingly popular as people get different recipe ideas from eating out on holiday in places where mussels have long been a healthy diet staple.”

Realising small businesses, especially modest ones in remote spots, can be stronger together, Shetland Mussels joined the co-operative in 2009. “It has made all the difference to our prospects,” adds Michael.

On the tech front, better data management to capture stock level details and improve productivity are increasingly on his radar.  

The company is also exploring satellite imagery which could help warn and then monitor any toxic algal blooms should they appear. 

It is also part of a Highlands and Islands University project developing sensors able to measure then send ashore real time information about plankton, water temperature and quality.  

Scotland’s mussel sector aims to grow from 7,000 to 21,000 tons by 2030. Shetland Mussels ambition is to invest up to £4million in the next few years which will go into developing new mainland sites, equipment and expansion of its fleet of three day boats with a new vessel with sleeping accommodation enabling greater area access for crews. 

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