The mollusk that ate Coupeville and vice versa | Rockin’ a Hard Place

Hard to believe, but not too long ago some folks on the Rock didn’t care much for mussels. The creatures disfigured dock pilings and messed up boat bottoms. Their sharp-edged shells cut your bare feet. They were tough and rubbery if you ate the big ones right off the beach. And the idea that someone would create a commercial mussel farm and plop several dozen floating platforms on pristine Penn Cove waters just off Madrona Way raised more than a few Rock hackles back in the 1970s.

Mention that this week as MusselFest 2015 gets underway in Coupeville, and you’ll likely hear a guffaw or receive a frigid stare. Penn Cove and mussels now go together like Philadelphia and cheesesteak or San Francisco and sourdough. The once-maligned mollusk has made us famous. Diners from New York to Paris and beyond now are apt to ask, “Where’s Penn Cove?” when told that’s where the plate of delicious mussels they’re about to devour came from. Hopefully, those mussels will be steamed, as we all know they’re supposed to be, in white wine, butter and garlic, not smothered in herbs and sauces as fancied by some in America. But let’s not pick that fight.

Love of our mussels has, if possible, grown stronger since we came close to losing our mollusks in 2012 with the notorious sinking of the Deep Sea crab trawler. Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the cove from that abandoned old hulk, just a few hundred yards from the Penn Cove Shellfish mussel farm platforms operated by the Jefferds family since 1975. The farm was forced to shut down for several anxious weeks, until certification by state environmentalists proved that no permanent damage to the cove’s water and marine life had occurred.

But long before retired Army officer Peter Jefferds, his wife and sons discovered how perfect Penn Cove is for growing mussels, the original Rock dwellers knew it only too well. Large communities of Skagit and Clallam peoples lived around the cove for several millennia, in no small part because of the abundant shellfish. That included oysters, clams and, especially, Mytillus trossolus — the mussel species native to Penn Cove that has cream-colored meat and tastes best when harvested at two or three inches in length.

The naysayers in the 1970s thought it almost sacrilegious to “commercialize” the cove by turning something into a cash crop that you could harvest free by simply walking on the beach. But since then, commercial farming of mussels has, in big ways and small, transformed Coupeville. Forty years ago, some folks thought Coupeville resembled a ghost town. The saw mills were long gone and so were the big boats that stopped at the wharf to haul the prairie’s agricultural bounty to warehouses in Seattle. About the town’s only claim to fame was as the seat of Island County government.

Contrast that with today’s prosperous tourist trade – day trippers, lovers, campers, bicyclists, seekers of peace and quiet, foodies and artists – that grows larger every year. This weekend, as you weave your way through the mob scene at MusselFest, drink a beer and clamor aboard the shuttle to visit a dozen local eateries and vote for the best mussel chowder, keep in mind where we’d be if it weren’t for Mytillus trossolus.

Still loving our beautiful cove, I imagine, but poorer and lonesome.