ROCKPORT — The conditions at the dock at the T Wharf early Wednesday morning were calm and pleasant, but the waves picked up in the quickening tide as Bill Lee motored the 44-foot Ocean Reporter out through Rockport Harbor and off toward Ipswich Bay.
“This is a little sloppier than we’d like, but we’ve been in worse,” said Mark R. Fregeau, a professor of marine biology at Salem State University. “You should have seen it in February.”
Lee is piloting the Ocean Reporter toward Hodgkins Cove, to a patch of open water and a tiny stretch of aquaculture that might hold the key to growing domestic mussels in open U.S. waters.
The project, started in 2006, first centered on determining the best type of gear and the optimum setups for cultivating mussels on an enormous scale, as well as learning about the shellfish’s spawning cycle and how to seed the lines.
In 2012, with the help of a $65,000 grant from NOAA, it began looking at the intricacies of developing a federal permitting process for mussel culture, and engaging local fishermen in the project.
But this is about so much more than the process. This is about exploration.
This is about entering the sea with an idea, and exiting with a partial solution to twin towers of modern fishery management in the Northeast groundfish fishery — staunching the economic and spiritual hemorrhage of the current fishing disaster and doing it in a sustainable, environmentally compatible way.
Who knew that might come down to mussels?
“We could be the template,” said Ted Maney, Fregeau’s SSU colleague and collaborator on the mussel project.
The two are researching the possibility of growing acres of mussels along long lines anchored in deep, open waters. The mussel aquacultures — or more simply, farms — would extend 30 to 35 acres at a depth of up to 150 feet of water, well above natural predators, such as crabs and starfish, that prey on mussels.