Friday, July 21, 2023
Eighteen months after the start of the construction of the first commercial sea farm some five kilometres off the Belgian coast, Colruyt Group is fully engaged in the first harvest of its very own Belgian mussels. In the next few months, the group will harvest between 10 and 15 tons of mussels cultivated using longline or “suspended culture” technology. The mussels will be for sale in the four Cru markets. Meanwhile Colruyt Group continues to work on the expansion of its innovative sea farm, Zeeboerderij Westdiep. Extra mussel lines were recently installed to enlarge the quantity of mussels available next year. In addition, the group has invested in a boat of its own and hired extra employees. They will see to the scaling up of the sea farm, of which currently only a quarter of the available area is in use.
At last, a star Belgian product
With an average per capita consumption of 2.2 kilos of mussels a year, Belgians are one of the largest mussel consumers in Europe.1 Until recently mussel production was non-existent in Belgium, even though mussel seed is naturally present in the Belgian North Sea, and the area is ideal for mussel cultivation. Colruyt Group decided to do something about that. Accordingly, some ten years ago, the company got involved in research on aquaculture in the North Sea. In 2020, when the Marine Spatial Plan came into force and hence enabled commercial activities in the North Sea, Colruyt Group applied for and was granted the necessary permits to cultivate mussels in the Westdiep area and in due course also oysters and seaweed. Eighteen months ago, the group started the construction of an innovative sea farm, the first in the Belgian North Sea.
Today the first modest mussel harvest is a fact. “We’re especially proud to have succeeded in offering consumers Belgian mussels,” says Stefan Goethaert, the new CEO of Colruyt Group. Furthermore, Belgian longline cultivated mussels are of exceptional quality: “The abundance of plankton in the Westdiep area ensures nice and full mussels, with a juicy, slightly salty taste. A truly unique Belgian product.”
Importance of aquaculture for Belgium
Currently aquaculture is the relatively strongest growing food production sector in the world. (Source: Belgian Strategic Plan Aquaculture 2021-2030)
Bart Tommelein, mayor of Ostend, has long been advocating for the development of a strong aquaculture sector in Belgium. “After years of research and development it is positive that Belgian companies are now putting their expertise into practice. The introduction of Belgian mussels by Colruyt Group gives the development of sustainable aquaculture in the North Sea an extra boost. Such investment projects also create job opportunities in the blue economy in our region. It is the innovation sector par excellence.”
Colruyt Group also strongly believes in the potential of the Belgian North Sea and therefore takes a leading role in the development of a fully-fledged aquaculture sector in Belgium. “We’re convinced that with the sea farm we represent significant economic and social added value for many actors, both via direct and indirect partnerships, and contribute to the development of a fully-fledged aquaculture sector in Belgium,” says Stefan Goethaert.
Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea, is also ambitious about the future of the Belgian North Sea, "These first Belgian mussels are a milestone in the economic development of our North Sea. If you know that we import 70% of our seafood in Europe, there is still a lot of potential for sustainable food production for our own coast. This is just the beginning of what we want to achieve with aquaculture. Think of the potential of seaweed farms. This allows you to grow 26 tons of fodder per hectare, while you can only get 5 tons on land. We are also fully investigating the possibility of oyster farms in the North Sea. The North Sea will only become more important in the coming years.”
More information on the research and the importance of aquaculture in the factsheet.
Sustainable, local mussel cultivation
Colruyt Group attaches great importance to local and sustainable food production. “By establishing the first commercial sea farm ourselves, we can set high standards in terms of sustainability. We use locally produced and recycled materials as much as possible, and resolutely opt for longline cultivation,” says Stefan Goethaert. This has numerous advantages. The mussel lines can move along with the sometimes very strong currents, they serve as shelter for fish and other marine life, increasing biodiversity in and around the cultivation area, and when harvesting the seabed is not damaged. Furthermore the mussels grow exceptionally fast as a result of the abundance of nutrients in the North Sea. In eighteen months they are ready to be eaten, whereas bottom-culture mussels need at least three or four years – twice as long.2 In these advantages Colruyt Group sees great potential: “We are facing many challenges in terms of food supply, such as the ever-increasing demand for balanced and sustainable sources of protein. We believe marine protein sources such as mussels, oysters and seaweed can provide an important answer to this,” says Stefan Goethaert.
More information on the sustainable and nutritious nature of mussels in the factsheet.
Local employment and investments
Colruyt Group recently invested in a boat of its own for maintenance and installation work as well as for harvesting. It also recruited three employees with specific profiles to manage the expansion of the sea farm. With the arrival of an operational manager, a project engineer and a captain, after the first mussel harvest, the focus will be on the further expansion of the current cultivation zone, which is delimited to 1 km². At present 31 mussel lines have been successfully installed. During the first phase of the sea farm, the aim is to evolve towards 150 lines within the same one square kilometre.
“The infrastructure works are a fantastic achievement,” says Stijn Van Hoestenberghe, operational manager of the sea farm. “Both the rough conditions typical of the North Sea with its strong currents and waves, and the weather conditions make working at sea anything but easy. Our team is really pioneering. From the construction through the cultivation and harvest, everything is innovative. At the same time we set strict safety requirements in everything we do. Every day at sea we learn something new, and we’re proud of the progress we make. We are now making every effort to harvest a greater volume of mussels in 2024.”
More information on the construction of the sea farm in the factsheet.
Mussel weekend at Cru
From 21 July, the Belgian mussels will be for sale in Cru’s four markets (Overijse, Dilbeek, Ghent and Antwerp) – while stocks last. And throughout the weekend (21 up until 23 July) customers of Cuit (Overijse, Dilbeek and Ghent) can enjoy a delicious portion of Belgian mussels with bread. In Cru’s markets, staff with expertise in the fish metier will offer customers tastings of the mussels.
1 Source: Zeevruchtengids.org, 2016.
2 Source: Mosselvisserij - Vistikhetmaar