What with tanker accidents, ongoing pressure from environmentalists and competition from OPEC, you’d think American oil companies had enough to worry about. Just three years ago this list of problems would have included the lesser-known but nonetheless pesky issue of a certain shellfish that was musseling in on the oil companies’ territory. It seems that the modest little mollusk likes to attach itself to the steel legs of the oil rigs off the Southern California coastline. The legs supporting the platforms are under constant stress from ocean currents, so the added weight of the fast-growing bivalves accelerated metal fatigue and posed a serious potential threat to the structures in storms.
One man’s pest is another man’s prize, and the restaurants in Santa Barbara and elsewhere along the coast had the opposite dilemma—not enough mussels. Having no local sources, the city’s chefs were at the mercy of long-distance suppliers.
Symbiosis makes strange bedfellows. Witness the missing link in this food chain: a mild-mannered 43-year-old Ph.D. in marine biology named Bob Meek. In 1977 Dr. Meek was surveying the marine life thriving on a Shell Oil offshore platform in order to discover how that growth could be slowed.
After an initial barnacle infestation, “the life forms grow and grow and grow until they blanket the bloody structure,” Meek observed. Within five years even the six-foot gaps between girders can be solid with growth. Meek also discovered that oil companies were spending up to $1,50,000 per rig for temporary cleanup solutions such as using high-pressure water hoses to blast the clingy critters to the bottom of the sea.
As a would-be mariculturist (i.e., someone who farms in a marine environment), Meek realized that oil rigs were perfect, if unintentional, mussel farms. In fact, as far as Meek could tell, the platforms were functioning exactly like mussel farms in Europe, where they consist of long strings hung from floating logs.
His first task was to convince the oil companies that a partnership would be mutually beneficial. With their astronomical cleanup costs in mind, Meek understandably thought, “This is the easiest selling job I’ll ever have.” Two years of polite offers and rejections later, Meek discovered that the prevailing attitude among oil company executives was “this is not a mariculture facility or a fishery; this is an oil rig.”
Finally, hearing that Phillips Oil had just spent a staggering sum to have two of its platforms cleaned, Dr. Meek got aggressive. “I walked in the door and asked, ‘Do you want to do that again?’ They said, ‘You can go out there and take off some mussels and see if it will work.’ ”
Meek’s next task was overcoming an equally uncooperative head of the local department of public health. When Meek asked what permits he would need, he was told not to bother. ” ‘Over my dead body,’ were his exact words,” recalls Meek. “His concern was pollution. The mussels would be bad and make people sick.”
Meek had already tested the mussels and found them better than good. “Mussels filter their food from the surrounding salt water, and the ones I tested were as clean, if not cleaner, than others grown farther north, away from platforms.” Unconvinced, the health official granted a permit conditional upon twice-weekly testing and a month long salt-water cleansing before sale. During that month, Meek would usually lose 80 to 90 percent of his harvest. After another frustrating year, Meek got the health department “to accept the testing that we were doing.”
Selling the mussels to local chefs proved the easiest part of the equation. “They tried them and said they were wonderful,” says Meek. “The ones they had been getting from the East Coast were half dead when they arrived, so this was great stuff.” Brophy Brothers, a Santa Barbara eatery, has had Meek’s mussels on the menu since it opened three years ago. “Bob’s mussels are so sweet, so fresh and so plump,” says Billy Molloy, Brophy Brothers’ general manager, “that local people always ask for them.”
Meek’s company, Ecomar, sells 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of mussels (at $1 a pound) and 1,000 bushels of oysters ($3.60 a dozen) per year to buyers as far east as Chicago. With a full-time staff of three, Meek and his wife, Jill, who contacts the restaurants and drives the delivery truck, Ecomar grossed $350,000 last year. Now Meek is even starting to export gooseneck barnacles (which he also harvests from the rigs) to Spain, where they are as exalted as escargots are in France.
Harvesting shellfish is not for the meek. Several days a week, Meek leaves his two-story redwood-and-glass house in Santa Barbara at 5 A.M. and takes a 40-minute boat ride to one of the 13 oil rigs he cleans three to 12 miles offshore. At the site, he and a helper don diving gear, hop over the side and spend two to three hours sucking up to 3,000 pounds of reluctant mollusks to the surface with a 160-foot-long hydraulic vacuum hose. Hazards can include 15-foot waves, infestations of mussel-eating starfish and tiny crabs who tug on Meek’s mustache.
No matter. Having wrestled with Big Oil and Big Bureaucracy, Meek is more than a match for nippers of all sizes. Especially given the inspiration of his business’ profitable—and elegant—entrepreneurial equation: “The oil companies get a nice clean platform,” says Meek, “and we get a pretty delicious mussel.”
—Ned Geeslin, Dianna Waggoner in Santa Barbara