The Billingsgate market is chiefly supplied with mussels from Holland, the east coast of England, Cornwall, and Devonshire, in August and September; though smaller quantities are received from other parts of our coasts, besides those above mentioned. About ten or twenty tons' weight arrive at a time, though, of course, the quantity varies according to the season, and they are sold at 1s. a measure. In the evidence given before the Fisheries Commission at Exeter, December 24, 1863, it was stated, that the price of these shellfish taken in the estuary at Lympstone, was 8s. per sack of ten pecks, but that the supply was decreasing.
Mussel culture is now successfully carried on, on the Boston Deep beds. Mr. Frank Buckland stated, in his examination before the Select Committee on Oyster Fisheries, in 1876, that, since the Lynn and Boston corporations have taken the beds under their protection, the mussels have increased immensely. The average value of these shellfish in the Lynn Deep alone, is about £3400 a year. There are 16 bags, or 32 bushels, in a ton of mussels, and each ton is worth about £1.
* 'Fish and Fisheries,' edited by David Herbert, M.A. 'Best Means of Increasing Mussels,' etc, by J. C. Wilcocks.
Dr. Knapp informed Messrs. Forbes and Hanley that the quantity of mussels consumed in Edinburgh and Leith is about 10 bushels per week, "say for forty weeks in the year, in all 400 bushels annually. Each bushel of mussels, when shelled and freed from all refuse, will probably contain from 3 to 4 pints of the animals, or about 900 to 1000, according to their size. Taking the latter number, there will be consumed, in Edinburgh and Leith, about 400,000 mussels. This is a mere trifle compared to the enormous number used as bait for all sorts of fish, especially haddocks, cod, ling, halibut, plaice, skate, etc.; and at Newhaven the total consumption of mussels for bait may be reckoned at 4,320,000 annually. There are nearly as many used at Musselburgh, Fisherrow, etc, and other places on the Frith of Forth, and we may calculate that 30,000,000 or 40,000,000 of mussels are used for bait alone by the fishermen of that district each year".*
We learn from Mr. P. Wilson, late Inspector of Fisheries at Eyemouth, in Scotland, that in one week alone, sixty-one tons of mussels were used for baiting the long lines, by the boats from the fishing stations of Eyemouth, Burnmouth, and Coldingham, the cost of which was about £160, the produce in fish from which was 25,620 stone, worth £2500.†
Mussels are considered to be the best bait for saltwater fish, and will keep alive two days, when taken from the shell, and suspended on a hook in sea-water.
The mussel has the power of attaching itself by means of its " byssus," to rocks and stones : and we read that the bridge at Bideford, in Devonshire, cannot be kept in repair by mortar, owing to the rapidity of the tide. "The corporation, therefore, keep boats to bring mussels to it, and the interstices of the bridge are filled by hand with these shellfish, and it is supported entirely by the strong byssus or threads these mussels fix to the stonework".*
* Forbes and Hanley, 'British Mollusca,' vol. ii. pp. 174, 175. † 'Molluscs, Mussels, Whelks, etc.,' by Charles Harding.
This byssus proceeds from a gristly shaft, which, Dr. Jeffreys states, appears to support the bundle of filaments like the handle of a broom; and Aristotle mentions this shellfish in his list of cartilaginous fish.
So valuable are mussels towards the protection of the shores from the inundations of the sea on some parts of our coasts, that it becomes necessary to prevent their being gathered in some places (see 'Times,' August 7th, 1865). An action for trespass was brought some time ago for the purpose of establishing the right of the lord of the manor to prevent the inhabitants of Heacham from taking mussels from the seashore. The locality is the foreshore of the sea, running from Lynn in a north-westerly direction towards Hunstanton, Norfolk; and " the nature of the shore is such that it requires constant attention, and no little expenditure of money, to maintain its integrity, and guard against the serious danger of inundations of the sea". A large quantity of shingle, seaweed, and mussels is always to be seen, and beds of mussels extend for miles along the shore, and mix with the seaweed and shingle, which get fixed on the artificial jetties running into the sea, attaching themselves by means of the byssus to these embanking defences, thereby rendering them firm, and thus acting as barriers against the sea; therefore, while it is important for the inhabitants, who claim a right by custom to take mussels and other shellfish from the shore, it is equally important for the lord of the manor to do his utmost to prevent these natural friends of his embankments and jetties, from being removed in large quantities from his part of the shore.
* 'Glimpses of Ocean Life,' p. 179.
According to Mr. Frank Buckland, the mussel is a great hindrance to the development of oyster-beds. "The mussel spat is sent forth, and the young mussels fall down upon the oyster-beds, and spin their webs over them, like beautiful silk ropes, by means of which they hold on to rocks and other things. They accumulate the mud, and the mud covers the oysters".
Neumann tells us that calcined mussel-shells make strong lime and bind quickly, and that shell-lime is generally considered stronger than stone-lime. Mussel-shells, when polished, make pretty pincushions and needle-books, and at the colourists they are filled with gold, silver, and bronze, and sold for heraldic painting and illuminating. It was in one of these shells, also, in which the witch, in the quaint old story, put to sea for the purpose of wrecking her enemy's ships.
A large species of mussel, called awabi, or awabee, is said to be used in Japan as a new year's gift. The day is spent in paying respects, visiting, and giving presents to friends and relatives, and they mostly consist of awabi. I believe, however, that it was not a mussel that was given as a new year's gift, but the large Haliotis gigantea, which is called awabi, by the Japanese, as we shall presently see. Awabi, in days of yore, were the first sustenance and support of the Japanese, as acorns were formerly the primitive diet of the inhabitants of Europe, and the awabi is the emblem, or rather the memorial, of the frugality of their forefathers.*