Europe’s mussel farmers face multiple hurdles

EM6 17 TM musselsIncreasing sustainable production will call for concerted efforts

The case study “Mussel Farming” has been investigated in the framework of the European project SUCCESS (Horizon 2020) along with other aquaculture case studies. This overview of the European mussel farming sector is based on a presentation given during the workshop at Cattolica (Italy) in May 2017 and relies on preliminary outputs of the project regarding this aquaculture sector.

Globally, the production of farmed mussels has exceeded that from the wild since the end of the 1950s, and the volume share of capture fisheries fell below 10% in 2005. In the EU, mussel farming and fisheries are well-established sectors in some countries, but have exhibited a downward production trend since the beginning of the century, whereas they are still expanding in other parts of the world. The volume share of production in the EU progressively decreased from 47% to 27% over the period 2000-2015; in the meantime, China’s share rose substantially from 30% to 42% and the contribution of Chile grew from 2% to 12% thanks to the development of aquaculture (FAO Fishstat).

Although different factors on the supply side may constrain recovery and further development of European mussel farming in the future, on the demand side the outlook is favourable. This type of production is well positioned to meet increasing consumer demand for affordable fresh seafood, and it also fits with social demand for low-input aquaculture, contributing significantly to employment in coastal areas.

Striking features in terms of EU production, trade and apparent consumption

At the European level, the production of mussels relies mainly on two species, Mytilus edulis and M. galloprovincialis, from northern countries and southern countries respectively. From 2000 to 2013, mussel production in the EU dropped from 740 to about 450 thousand tonnes due to a downward trend in aquaculture and the dramatic decline of capture fisheries (mainly from Denmark). The level of production then recovered to above 500 thousand tonnes in 2014 and 2015 (FAO FishStat). The top 4 farmed mussel producers have not changed since 2000, and accounted for 82% of EU production in volume (average 2000-2015). Spain comes far ahead (42%) followed by France and Italy (15% each), the Netherlands (10%), Ireland (6%), the UK (5%) and Greece (4%). In value, the share of the top 4 countries is unchanged, but the ranking is modified: France ranks first followed by Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The deficit of the EU mussel market has been increasing to meet the demand for mussels, but extra-EU imports rely exclusively on processed products. In 2015, they reached EUR145m including EUR25m of frozen or dried mussels and EUR120m of prepared or preserved mussels. Concerning the latter products, extra-EU imports from Chile have been progressively expanding and competing with intra-EU imports. On the other hand, the majority of mussel trade occurs at the intra-EU level (EUR265m in 2015) and is always dominated by import (export) of live, fresh or chilled mussels (71% in value).

For the bulk of the European mussel market (fresh products), the level of intra-EU trade over the period 2000-2015 fluctuated between 125 and 175 thousand tonnes for imports (144 thousand tonnes on average) and between 130 and 185 thousand tonnes for exports (147 thousand tonnes on average). Net importers of fresh mussels over the period are in decreasing order France (37 thousand tonnes in average), Belgium (25 thousand tonnes) and Italy (20 thousand tonnes) in volume, while in value the highest deficit is related to Belgium. Net exporters include Spain (28 thousand tonnes), the Netherlands (20 thousand tonnes), Denmark, Greece and Ireland (10-15 thousand tonnes), albeit in value the Dutch trade surplus is by far the largest. Despite erratic export trends, striking features to be noticed are the progressive growth of Spanish mussel exports in live/fresh form and the recovery of Dutch mussel production and exports in the most recent years.

As a result of the downward trend in production, the seafood balance sheet for mussels shows a decrease at the EU scale, from about 750 to 650 thousand tonnes (live weight) between 2000 and 2015. At its lowest, the European apparent market for mussels barely reached 570 thousand tonnes in 2013 and consumption per capita was 1.1 kg (live weight). In 2014 and 2015, this indicator went up again to 1.3 kg per capita (all forms included). This average indeed hides significant disparities since the consumption markets for mussels are concentrated in some countries. France and Spain each represented a quarter of the EU28 mussel consumption in 2015 and Italy had at least 20% of the market share. The following countries fell to 4-5% (Belgium, UK), and a main producer/exporter such as the Netherlands only counted for 2% of the mussel consumption in the EU. By level of consumption per inhabitant, Spain ranked first in 2015 (3.5 kg), followed by Denmark, Belgium, France and Italy (2-3 kg). In exporting countries like Greece, Ireland and the Netherlands, mussel consumption is less than one kg per year.

Diversity of production systems in the EU

Mussel farming, which has a long history in some European countries, relies on a variety of cultural techniques originally developed in different natural environments (in intertidal areas, lagoons, “rias”, at sea…). Traditional production modes such as rafts in Galician rias (“bateas”), culture on wooden stakes (like “bouchot” in France), and even bottom culture on plots in the Netherlands and Germany still represents the majority of the EU mussel production in volume (at least 70% in 2015). Despite the predominance of longlines in other countries and outlooks of development based on this technique, this is far from being the most widespread production system for mussels in the EU today.

The description of production systems (PS) undertaken within the SUCCESS project mainly focused on the dominant PS in Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Greece.   

Structural and economic data resulting from the aquaculture data collection framework (DCF) provided complementary and valuable indicators for the characterisation and comparison of production systems. Globally, mussel farming remains a small-scale activity, with a low level of employment by enterprise. However, beyond this common feature, the characteristics of the dominant PS can differ significantly. The Dutch production system based on bottom cultivation shows the highest indicators of concentration and is the most capital intensive. At the opposite, the mussel farming sector in Spain, which plays a significant role in the development of certain areas, is characterised by a high level of employment, by multiple activities, and relies on family labour and part-time jobs. In terms of cost structure, the share of labour costs in 2013-2014 ranged from a quarter (Dutch bottom culture) to more than 60% (Spanish mussel raft), through 30-40% (French bouchot mussel, Italian long-lines). Conversely, the weight of energy costs is higher for the Dutch production system (11%) than for the bouchot cultivation system in inshore areas (about 3%). As regards profitability indicators (net profit ratio, return on investment) and level of remuneration of labour, the Dutch production system clearly ranks first. Other production systems have lower but also contrasted economic results. For instance, the Spanish raft aquaculture shows a higher net profit compared to the French “bouchot” culture, but a lesser remuneration of labour, and a similar return on investment. Anyway, the assessment of the economic sustainability of productions systems would deserve a longer period analysis to take into account the yearly fluctuations of production. In addition, the level of integration of production rights as intangible in the total value of assets, which indeed influence the ROI indicator, should also be considered for more in-depth comparison.

The characterisation of production systems also takes into account aspects related to the diversification of mussel producers in purification and dispatching activities, and even in trade, and to the development of valorisation strategies (quality schemes). In this respect, it could be assumed that the differential in the level of valorisation of mussel sales not only depends on the species (blue mussel or Mediterranean mussel) but also reflects different level of integration and coordination along the mussel value chains. The related (data collection framework) DCF indicator ranged from 1.9€/kg (French blue mussels) to 0.5€/kg (Spanish mussels) in 2013-2014. Table


Main bottlenecks and challenges for the future

Among the bottlenecks identified for European mussel farming, environmental concerns and regulatory constraints are considered the most critical. Environmental bottlenecks refer to all factors causing mussel mortalities or other economic losses due to periods of sales closure: epizootic events, red tides, climatic events, natural competitors and predators, blooms of toxic phytoplankton, water quality degradation… For instance, red tides are responsible for significant fluctuations in Spanish mussel production. Impact of predation by seabream is significant too, insofar as it has hindered the development of mussel long lines in the French Mediterranean.  

Regulatory constraints generate difficult access to new farming sites or renewal of existing aquaculture authorisations, and insecure production rights. Inadequate governance in coastal areas with high competition for space results in increasing conflicts between the different users and a lack of social acceptability for aquaculture.  A more specific issue is related to the lack of availability of seeds in the case of the Dutch mussel farming industry still relying on seed fishery in dedicated areas. This issue is being solved by the progressive introduction of seed collectors, as compelled by new regulatory restrictions. Finally, structural and economic weaknesses can also be emphasized, in relation to the lack of professionalization of the activity and low level of integration of dispatch/purification centres (Spain), the deficient organisation of producers (Italy) or the lack of outlets on the domestic market (Greece). These factors are probably involved in the insufficient valorisation of mussels by producers.

Achieving the objectives of national strategic plans for the development of sustainable aquaculture, (+25% of growth for the whole shellfish production at the EU level) may therefore seem ambitious. Increasing growth in European mussel farming will firstly require mitigating environmental problems.  In relation to the main priority area for removing obstacles to the development of EU aquaculture, institutional improvements are also expected in some countries to “reduce administrative burden” and simplify licencing procedures. Another priority area “improving access to space and water” is more dependent on recent EU regulations, such as the revision of the EIA directive in 2014 and the on-going drawing-up of MSP by member states to comply with the Directive 2014/89/EU for establishing a framework for maritime spatial planning.

On the production side, key challenges remain for the mussel farming sectors. One important issue is to reduce profitability decrease due to environmental risks or/and to unsustainable cultural practices, in particular through the setting up of co-management systems. Another issue is to stay competitive while consolidating the market power of producers along the value chain, thanks to more efficient and sustainable production systems, sales organisation, new outlets and quality schemes.  In a second step of the SUCCESS project, “room for improvement” is being investigated in line with the main issues at stake in different countries. In Greece, the development of new products (unvalved mussels with an extended lifespan) for targeting the domestic market has been studied. In other countries, the analysis of room for improvement mainly focuses on labelling initiatives and their ability to create a dynamic within the sector and the value-chain, improving economic and environmental sustainability, and meeting current consumer expectations.

Sophie Girard