Musseling In on the Market : Marine Biologist and Oil Companies Cultivate a Symbiosis at Sea
To oil companies, the mussels that grow on the legs of offshore rigs are garbage that they scrape off and throw away.
To Santa Barbara marine biologist Bob Meek, they are black gold that he harvests as carefully as the oil firms pump up the viscous stuff from beneath the ocean floor.
Using a hoe, a suction hose and lots of elbow grease, Meek rakes and vacuums up the plentiful mollusks that cling to the long legs of oil platforms along the Southern California coast. Then he sells them to restaurants that pay top prices for them.
The oil companies get their rigs cleaned for free, saving up to $200,000 annually. They otherwise would have to pay to keep the metal platforms free of the growth that add dangerous weight and mechanical stress to the legs.
And Meek, who has a doctorate from UC Santa Barbara, makes a healthy living while realizing a 15-year dream.
“What we are doing is the beginning of mariculture offshore,” said Meek, whose Ecomar Marine Consulting firm in Goleta sent half a million pounds of mussels to market last year.
At least once a week, the 42-year-old Meek rises at 5 a.m. to hitch a ride on an oil supply boat to one of the platforms offshore between Santa Barbara and Long Beach. Of 22 offshore rigs, he farms 16.
On a recent overcast morning, Meek stalked the walks and gangways of Chevron’s Platform Hope like an alley cat on a fence.
Then he squinted into the aquamarine depths offshore from Carpinteria to take an informal inventory of mussel growth. The mussels grow rapidly beneath the platform, festooning its legs from sea level to 40 feet below, after which there isn’t enough light for the plankton on which mussels feed. In the course of one year, more than one million mussels can accumulate on an average-sized platform.
Some marine biologists who once blasted the oil platforms as potential polluters now acknowledge their role as teeming marine-life habitats that draw plankton, then mussels, then small fish, then larger fish, and so on up the food chain.
With a crew of eight, Meek can harvest 3,500 pounds a day of bay mussels from the reefs of steel, using equipment he has assembled after years of experiment. Previously, the oil companies had relied on costly commercial divers equipped with high-pressure nozzles.
Ecomar is a family affair: Meek’s wife, Jill, works in the office and drives the mussel delivery truck, while their 18-year-old son, Matt, who is off to Humboldt State this fall to study aquaculture, helps out in the summer.
“You have to be real calm and mellow. Once when I was 100 feet down my air hose got cut off. But it’s usually not that dangerous,” the younger Meek said, adding that the crew usually works in depths of 30 feet or less.
The harvesting works this way:
Two wet suit-clad divers (the temperature in the coastal waters can dip to 48 degrees) jump off the platform equipped with air hoses and mouthpieces for breathing and a hoe and a corrugated plastic tube to suck up the mussels. Usually, one man loosens the mollusks while the other vacuums.
Meek has small compressors on each rig that pump air to the divers while they work. Compressors also generate the pressure that sucks the mussels through the tubes and onto the oil platform deck, where they are disgorged into a tumbling wire mesh container that looks like an oversized raffle box.
The box turns constantly, allowing barnacles, seaweed and excess salt water to cascade through the mesh and back into the ocean, but retaining the larger mussels.
Steaming on Stoves
Within hours, the mussels will be steaming on the stoves of local restaurants. Ecomar delivers twice a week to 45 restaurants in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and sells wholesale to distributors up and down the West Coast and inland as far as Chicago. They fetch $1 a pound wholesale.
“They’re as good as any you can buy,” said Michael Hutchings, proprietor and chef of the elegant Michael’s Waterside restaurant in Montecito. He is a regular customer.
Meek spent two years as a scientist for the Smithsonian Institution before founding his marine consulting business. In 1973, an oil company hired him to study the problem of marine growth on its structures. Meek noticed how well the mussels grew, swept by currents rich in plankton and undisturbed by coastal waves. And he knew that mussels served in Santa Barbara restaurants were either imported from the East Coast or flown in from New Zealand.
So Meek decided to muscle in on the industry. After sinking $250,000 into equipment, he began pitching his idea to the oil companies.
But bureaucratic problems abounded and it wasn’t until seven years later that Meek signed his first contract to scrape mussels off a Phillips Petroleum rig.
All along, Meek said, he had few ecological concerns about working with the oil companies, despite the memory of the 1969 spill that left an 800-square-mile oil slick off the Santa Barbara coast.
“I know all the guys who work on the rigs and I know how conscientious they are about their job, so I don’t have a philosophical problem with what they’re doing there,” he says.
Since 1980, the Meeks have also started culturing scallops and oysters--up to 50,000 annually--that they grow from trays that hang off platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. They also are exploring the possibility of exporting gooseneck barnacles, which are considered a delicacy in parts of Europe.
The Meeks, who still do marine consulting, say that in good years, 80% of their business comes from mariculture. But this has been a tough season. Last winter’s storms discouraged mussels from spawning, which made for a light harvest. And storms also washed away 300,000 pounds of seafood that the Meeks had been cultivating below the platforms.
But nature’s vagaries aside, the years of harvesting have only strengthened the unlikely marriage between Goleta’s entrepreneurial marine biologist and the oft-maligned multinational oil companies
Ecomar’s presence “benefits both sides,” said John Deutsch, Chevron’s production foreman on Platform Hope. “We get our rigs cleaned and they make a profit.”