POLLUTION has led to a ban on mussel farming around Falmouth and forced producers to shut up shop, lay off staff and move offshore.
River Fal mussels are off the menu in local and national restaurants after the Food Standards Agency downgraded the water quality of the estuary due to a high concentration of E. coli following two years of wet weather washing sewage into waterways.
Mussel beds in the Helford River (as well as on the Camel River) are also at risk of closure in September, sounding the “death knell” for river-farmed shellfish, according to some farmers.
Duchy Oyster Farms expected to harvest 40 tonnes of mussels each year after storing up 140 tonnes at its site at King Harry Ferry.
“With the downgrading we cannot harvest it,” said site manager Mark Mercer. “Now we cannot sell them.”
The company may be able to farm the mussels from a relay site at its oyster farm in Port Navas. However, he added: “But if they downgrade there in September that becomes null and void.”
He said Cornwall Port Health Authority told the company – which was about to advertise for two full-time staff but has had to withdraw the roles – the ban could last a year.
He added: “It will destroy the mussel industry. There is no business with the downgrading. It is very disappointing that a local natural resource is being lost.
“Something needs to be done about so much sewage being pumped into the rivers.”
Mr Mercer stressed that oysters were not currently under threat.
But former mussel farmer Matt Vernon said: “This is the death knell for the shellfish industry in Cornwall.
“It will only be a matter of time before all the estuaries are closed. And oysters won’t be far behind.”
Mr Vernon ran the Cornish Mussel Shack for four years before closing last month.
Westcountry Mussels said it would have had to lay off six staff at its site on the River Fal as a result of the ban if it had not moved its operations offshore at Fowey.
Director Gary Rawle said: “I feel we dodged a bullet.
“There is no future there. In the years to come there will be no shellfish farmed in the estuaries.
“It is only a matter of time before all the estuaries are shut because no one is fixing the problem.
“We have got the dirtiest water in Europe. It is caused by land run-off and storm flow from sewage discharge pipes.”
River Fal mussels are sought-after throughout Europe because of their unique taste, created by the rocks and minerals in the estuary.
Chef and restaurateur Ken Symons, from Oliver’s in Falmouth, said it was a “great loss”, adding: “They are immensely popular. Just that label of Fal River mussels is just fantastic. They sell themselves. They are better than anything else on the market.”
A former client of Mr Vernon, Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens, told him it was a “real shame” as they were the “best he had ever had”.
On Friday, Cornwall Port Health Authority wrote to mussel farmers announcing a ban on harvesting at the last two ‘clean’ sites on the River Fal – Ruan Creek and King Harry Reach – after downgrading the water quality from B to C.
In north Cornwall, Gentle Jane on the Camel River is classified as being 'at risk' by the Food Standards Agency and may be closed to mussel farming in September.