Story first published in EX magazine. Image
by Matt Austin.
If you meet Myles Blood Smyth, owner of Exmouth Mussels, don’t mention rabbits. “It’s unlucky for fishermen to talk about rabbits,” he tells me when I do mention them. “We say four leggers.” I’m convinced he’s joking, but he assures me it’s unlucky among fishermen, to mention rabbits as sea at least.
Myles is wearing wellington boots and covered in muck. I probably shouldn’t have pointed this out to him but luckily he saw the funny side. It’s not that I was expecting him to be in a suit and tie but I didn’t necessarily to learn that the boss is quite as hands on as he is.
When I turn up at the docks to find out more about this thriving, ecologically sound enterprise, I learn that Myles, his wife Lisa and their nine-strong team are still quietly chuffed having received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for their commitment to environmental sustainability earlier this year.
The company has shunned the use of dredges to harvest the mussels from the seabed, in preference for a piece of equipment called a self-fluidising elevator which hovers over the mussels, teases them from their muddy bed with minimal disturbance to them and other marine life and leaving the seabed intact. And it’s this eco-conscious ethos, their integrity and high quality product has earned them respect and success.
“Anyone brought up in the country will know you insult nature at your peril,” the 55-year-old father-of-three tells me. “You get out what you put in. If you take a short cut with nature it will turn round and bite you.
“There are fishing methods that damage the sea bed and others that are sustainable. Most shellfish industries use a dredging method, but you can’t do this in a specially protected area like the River Exe. What I wanted was to develop a process which was environmentally benign and symbiotic. And we are proving we are not only marching parallel with nature but we are actually giving it a helping hand.
“We’re moving baby mussels into a complete desert which only has a few crabs,” he continued. “Later on, surveys have picked up on around 57 different species living on our mussel beds causing a river of life snaking up the estuary and providing an environmental niche.
To ensure his business is environmentally friendly as he can possible be, Myles works closely with environmental bodies such as Natural England and Devon Fisheries.
“So many of these officials come down here thinking fishermen are the closest people to pirates, but it is possible to win them over,” he continued. “You can change their minds when you show them it is possible to fish in a specially protected area without degrading it.”
There is a pattern to mussel fishing which involves Myles and his crew relocating the mussel seeds from the locations in the estuary Mother Nature randomly establishes them, to spots that will enable them to flourish.
“If you left it to nature, several thousand tonnes of mussel seeds would end up by accident in a certain area that isn’t necessarily the best place for them,” Myles explains. “So what would happen is a massive surge in population of the life that is dependent on the mussels. But when they get too old, the population would crash.
“We are taking the luck out of it and are keeping a constant and sustainable population. This way the biomass of all dependent species is being maintained too. If only I could get them to be self re-laying!”
Myles describes his methodology as “old-fashioned husbandry”. “This is man interfering in a benign way,” he says. “We take away nothing and add nothing, we just move the mussels around, and if you can do that and the river can benefit and the environment can benefit, it’s a wonderful example of how fishing can work.”
And he describes the River Exe as unique. “It’s a natural harbour that protects the mussels, absolutely bursting with plankton, which is something to do with the hydrodynamics in the area which are really good,” he continues. “And it’s quite shallow so we can get to the beds easily. And we can fish in a way that can be commercial. To make a living for nine people and not damage your environment in an area that’s as beautiful as this, is a trick I’m very proud of.
“The last thing we want to do is degrade our environment so keeping it sustainable and improving with the natural cycle of life is the best thing.”
The MSC accreditation which took “masses of paperwork” and nine months to go through, has given the company an internationally recognised stamp of approval.
“It says that every part of our activity from beginning to end has been scrutinised and that not only are we benign but what we are doing is beneficial,” he explains. “Finding out we’d got it was one of the better days of my working life.
“I have always been proactive in the industry to take mussel farming to its best possible conclusion so to have this seal of approval feels good. To a lot of people it means nothing but to those who understand, it means everything and they’ll know what we’ve been through and what we do.
“People have to realise they must take responsibility for their environment and I’m proud I have that ticket.”
The business has evolved from an annual production of around ?? to 1,000 – 2,000 tonnes. Around 70 – 80 per cent of produce is exported to Holland but it can also be found across the Westcountry, up country and some of London’s finest eateries which are “far too snooty for most people to afford”.
The company has also recently started supplying the Tesco superstores in Exmouth and Exeter. Supermarket bosses were so impressed with the product they entered the company into a competition to receive a Quality Award, which they have made the shortlist for. “I think we’re up against butter and some sort of dip,” Myles says. “So if we can’t beat butter we shouldn’t be in this game!
“There’s always a surge in sales during the holiday period,” he continues. “But having a major retailer onboard means sales are more consistent throughout the year. We knew we had to approach the multiples to achieve this and Tesco has become known for wanting to use local produce in its stores.”
Plus, Myles says supplying the big supermarkets is also a way of ensuring people have more of an opportunity to enjoy mussels at home.
I learn that the dockside enterprise starts buzzing around 7am and the whole process, from harvesting, cleaning, to packaging is completed on site by Myles and his crew ready for collection or delivery to the wholesalers.
Myles shows me what happens to the mussels once they have been brought to shore. They are first submerged in giant tanks of seawater under an ultra violet light causing them to spit out all the sand and bacteria which is zapped by the light. After 42 hours when they are completely clean, they move to a de-byssing machine where their beards are removed and they are polished, saving hours of “back breaking” scrubbing which used to be done by Myles and his crew by hand. Nowadays they are shifting around two-and-a-half tonnes of mussels a day. Before it was a few hundred kilos.
“The supply is finite,” says Myles. “So if you over stock you won’t get them to grow properly. So the amount we produce is based on what the estuary can sustain as well as customer demand.”
Myles explains that when the mussels are brought in they are “regarded”, meaning the small ones go back to grow some more and the ones that are just the right size are processed. But there can also be mussels that are too big. “The trouble is when they are about three or four years old they are so big they scare people on their forks,” says Myles. “And they become grainy.
“Our mussels are as good as they get,” he continued. “They’re black, their shells are hard, they are full of meat, they have quality and flavour, and have a long shelf life.” This could be because of the meticulous thought Myles and his team take to make sure the mussels don’t get too stressed. Yes stressed.
“I don’t want to sound altruistic,” he continues. “But everything we do is from the point of view of the mussels. They suffer stress. The best thing to do to a mussel is nothing. As soon as you start cleaning them their shelf life diminishes as it’s getting stressed, so everything must be done as gently as possible, from teasing them off the bed and then giving them the best possible conditions.”
Myles is proud of his team, who can “do everything”, like him. “And they all know all the customers,” he adds. “They make me fish, scrape the barnacles and they make me make tea and then they make me pay them! It’s run like a co-operative. But we all know who’s really in charge,” he adds with a wry smile. I knew he meant Lisa. “She gets all the customers, deals with the legal and health and safety side of things and makes sure the whole thing runs smoothly. And she gets stuck in and scrapes barnacles too – there’s nothing she can’t do.”
The ethos and quality of Exmouth Mussels has made an impression on a national scale. Myles has frequently been approached by television companies and has recently featured on River Cottage’s Three Hungry Boys series, The Hungry Sailors with Dick Strawbridge and Countryfile.
But he’s lost count of all the programmes the company’s been featured on and says there’s a few in the pipeline but he can’t recollect those either. “We’d won some farming awards which I think brought us some attention,” he says. “And the foody world is relatively small. But our mussels are the ones who do the talking in the long run, and the fact we can do this in an environmentally responsible way.”
Myles grew up by the sea in Ireland and has been “obsessed” with the boating, fishing and the sea generally, “forever”. But before founding Exmouth Mussels he was a thatcher for 12 years.
“You don’t have to be uni-dimensional as a human being,” he says. “While I was thatching, that became very satisfying and obsessive, but it didn’t have that spirit of excitement. You can’t deny the hunter that’s in you.
“I’m obsessed with boats and fishing and hydraulics. It’s all cave man stuff – knocking something on the head and dragging it home. But you have to be intelligent about it.”
He adds, “It’s about making things and accomplishing something – if you want to keep your head together as you get older you have to stay busy and obsessed. Then you’ll have a happy time. Lots of people don’t after they hit their mid fifties, I’ve seen lots of people like it, but if you stay busy, you’ll stay well.
“And the guys I work with are a pleasure to work with, not all of them all of the time! But you get more enjoyment out of building things together than doing it alone. It’s like being in the army – and Lisa’s the sergeant major, she’s going to kill me if she reads this!”
(Photos by, http://mattaustinimages.wordpress.com)