A peculiar case of mussels and merchandising

A peculiar case of mussels and merchandising

What can you say of the humble mussel? At face value, probably not much. However, Natural History Technician contractor Lorenzo Ravalo looks at what’s in a name when it comes to flexing our marketing mussel overseas.

New Zealand exhibits an all-around amazing assemblage of astonishing mussels of varying shapes and sizes. That being said, what most Kiwis think of when we talk about mussels would be the green-lipped mussel, Perna canaliculus, kuku or kūtai in te reo Māori.

It’s hard to blame them, Perna is prolific in New Zealand cuisine from simple steam-ups to elaborate wine-based dishes. Suffice to say, when you mussel in New Zealand, it’s sure to be a green-lipped galore. It is therefore interesting that the blue mussel Mytilus aoteanus tends to take the back seat when it comes to delectable cuisine for the Kiwi palate.

A left hand holding up a mussel shell
Easy pickings of green-lipped mussel, Perna canaliculus, in Sorrento Bay, Eastbourne, Wellington. Photo by Lorenzo Ravalo

New Zealand is an interesting case as it is one of the few countries with native blue mussels that are not exploited in any form of aquaculture. When you look to Europe, the dominant aquaculture mussel is M. edulis, with the species itself quite literally meaning the “mussel which is edible”!

Moving closer to home, Australia has extensive aquaculture of M. planulatus and M. galloprovincialis so it is quite peculiar why New Zealand does not follow suit.

Branding is Key

Perna as a genus is represented by three extant taxa; P. perna (the brown mussel native to the South Atlantic), P. viridis (the Asian mussel native in the Indo-Pacific), and P. canaliculus (the New Zealand green-lipped mussel) all of which are pretty much limited to their respective native ranges.

Notice that among the species listed above we have the New Zealand green-lipped mussel. P. canaliculus is endemic to New Zealand and is, therefore, a commodity that no other country has. This also means New Zealand has a monopoly over this specific product and cannot be overtaken by anybody.

This is enhanced by the marketing side of things where despite the common name of our little friends being the “green-lipped mussel”, they are sold as the gourmet “GreenshellTM mussel”.

Three mussel shells sitting on plastic
Juvenile cultured green-lipped mussel, Perna canaliculus, spat at approximately 50 days old. Photo by Lorenzo Ravalo

An unruly friend

With this in mind, when we consider M. aoteanus, global competition is much more rampant! Mytilus is an antitropical genus, meaning it occurs across the globe except in the equatorial regions. This is compounded by the number of species listed under the Mytilus which is a nightmare for food labelling. Compared to the taxonomy of Perna the understanding of Mytilus is ever-changing, with several species being split, synonymised, split again, and old taxa being revived from beyond the grave.

Although branding may not seem that significant, ultimately you do not want to be selling something under the wrong name misleading the people, that’s just bad practice! That being said we also need to consider where these mussels are coming from.

A cluster of small dark blue shells clinging to concrete
A mighty mix of Mytilus spp. encrusted in Oriental Bay, Wellington. Photo by Lorenzo Ravalo

Musseling in on the ecosystem

Mytilus mussels, specifically M. galloprovincialis, are highly invasive and have been known to change ecosystem dynamics quite drastically. M. galloprovincialis in New Zealand alone clocks at around $16.4 million of economic loss per annum in the mussel industry as they tend to outcompete Perna in mussel lines.

We would therefore need to be able to trace where these mussels come from and how they are different from our native Mytilus from both a production standpoint and biosecurity standpoint. Although there have been some initiatives regarding blue mussels in New Zealand; a Christchurch-based firm explored the possibility of producing high protein aquaculture feed using blue mussels discarded from mussel farms.

When we factor in the rigmarole of it all, farming Perna is just much simpler in Aotearoa New Zealand. The world is quite literally our mussel (oyster, but the metaphor wouldn’t land otherwise) with Perna.

That being said, it is still important to take note of the great range of quirky bivalves we have here. At the end of the day if you want a good bucket of mussels for dinner Mytilus and Perna both get the job done, and the taste difference is quite striking if I do say so myself.

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