Several shellfishermen and fishermen are taking a first step on a long road to raise blue mussels for market in Vineyard waters.

Rick Karney, director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, the project's principal investigator, has applied for a state grant to fund half of a $28,730 feasibility project.Blue mussels are a highly prized shellfish. Island consumers buy plenty of them in local fish markets, but nearly all the mussels come from Canada.

The project calls for setting up five testing stations in the waters off Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury. Each station will consist of a rope running from a buoy on the surface to the bottom. The fishermen will see if mussels will grow on the ropes.

While each station has less gear than a lobster pot and a buoy, the implications of its success could in the years ahead prove to be a new source of income for Island fishermen. The proposal already has drawn the interest of a venture capitalist.

"In the wake of diminished wild fish stocks, the development of an economically and environmentally sound mussel aquaculture industry in the offshore waters of Martha's Vineyard promises to provide alternative marine-based employment opportunities to Vineyard fishers," reads the beginning of Mr. Karney's application to the South Eastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center in Barnstable.

Mr. Karney has the support of the selectmen in Chilmark and West Tisbury.

Last November, Richard Langan, a top aquaculture specialist and advocate with the University of New Hampshire, came to the Chilmark Public Library to give a presentation on the successful farming of blue mussels in his state.

More than a dozen Vineyard fishermen attended. At the end of the meeting, they agreed that the Vineyard might be a viable site for a similar industry.

After the meeting, Mr. Langan, who works for The Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries, pledged expertise and equipment to help Vineyarders pursue such a project.

Mr. Karney said the $28,730 project, which would begin and end this year, is a first step to find out whether blue mussels are compatible to Mr. Langan's method of raising shellfish on rope. It is widely known that the shellfish are already here and in prolific numbers, but it is questionable whether the local waters get too warm. Half of the money would come from the state and the other half would be put forward by the participating fishermen.

"We have some initial questions that need to be answered," Mr. Karney said. They'd like to know, for instance, what the range of temperature takes places in Vineyard waters.

Blue mussels are successful in the colder waters of the North. They don't do well when the water gets warmer than 65 degrees for extended periods of time. Temperature recording devices will be added to the lines.

Tom Osmers, a West Tisbury shellfish constable, has been a commercial fishermen for more than 30 years. He said he wants to know whether blue mussels growing on rope will be free of pea crabs.

Pea crabs, also humorously called "crunch crabs," are a tiny crustacean that lives inside the mussel. In New England, the appearance of these tiny harmless crabs inside a cooked shell diminishes their culinary value. If the the mussels can be raised without the crabs, they will be more valuable. In Europe, the appearance of the pea crab is highly acceptable, Mr. Osmers said. but are a detriment here.

Fortunately, plenty of information is available about the successful raising of blue mussels in New England.From 1998 to 2000, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ran a $250,000 successful project to raise blue mussels on rope in waters just 10 miles southwest of Gay Head. The animals were raised in waters as deep as 140 feet.

Mr. Osmers said that mussels grow on West Dock on the spilings in Menemsha.

He said he recalls one year when a conch fisherman left his conch pots to winter in the waters east of Oak Bluffs. "When we went back to reclaim them in the spring, we found the buoy ropes were covered with little mussels," he said.

"In the face of what is happening with inshore fisheries, this is a good step to find out what can be done," Mr. Osmers said.

Mussels are a popular item at many seafood restaurants. "I always heard that mussels are the poor man's oyster," he said.

All five sites are within the state's three-mile limit and are under the jurisdiction of the towns' selectmen and their shellfish constables. The West Tisbury site is just south and west of Cedar Tree Neck. A Chilmark site is off Cape Higgon. Two Chilmark sites are west of Aquinnah and the fifth is due south of Squibnocket.

These sites are temporary. Each anchor and line will be removed at the end of the coming year, Mr. Karney said. Because the selectmen are behind the project, he said, no additional permit process is needed. The grant results will be shared with the fishermen.

Should anyone of the fishermen pursue raising blue mussels commercially, they'll need to pick a site and gain approval from town officials and the state. That initiative would be far more complicated than this first baby step.

John Armstrong, a Menemsha lobsterman, is one of the principal fishermen in the grant application.

Of commercial raising of blue mussels, he said: "I like the idea that this might be something I can do from my boat. The trick is finding out whether it can be done, whether the water temperatures are right and there are no conflicts with other fisheries. At this point we are just looking.

"Fishing has a strong heritage with the town of Chilmark and the rest of the Island," Mr. Armstrong said. "This isn't just for us, this is for the guys coming behind so they have something. There aren't a lot of fishermen now. I don't want it to end with us."

The interest in raising blue mussels goes beyond Island shores. Soon after seeing an article in the Vineyard Gazette last month on the blue mussel farm initiative, venture capitalist David Robinson of Burr Ridge, Ill. and East Chop, wrote a letter to Mr. Karney expressing his interest in participating.

Earlier this week, Mr. Robinson told the Gazette: "I like to eat mussels. I think it is important with the depletion of food coming from the ocean, I think we will see more aquaculture. I have done some research and there is nothing easy to do these days."

Aquaculture has been a serious issue of discussion for many years on the Island. In February of 1995, the Martha's Vineyard Commission, together with other governmental agencies from the mainland hosted an aquaculture symposium at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.

In that same year the federal National Marine Fisheries Service came forward with funds to help the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group train local commercial fishermen on how to raise shellfish. Today, a few of those fishermen are raising culture oysters in Katama Bay in Edgartown.

Mr. Karney said: "I think the potential of aquaculture is great here. What we were able to do for the oyster farms has been satisfying. The bottom line is that the guys are doing well. I think the potential of aquaculture to help maintain marine-related employment fits here."

Mr. Karney said that not much space is available in the Island's inshore waters, but there is a lot more offshore.

Blue-mussel farms are not new to Massachusetts. But Dave Whittaker, a senior marine biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said there are no large blue-mussel ventures now.

"The mussel farming industry was going great 15 to 20 years ago and has since gone down. There were large ventures in Plymouth and Chatham at Great Round Shoal, between Monomoy and Nantucket," he said. But they ended for reasons he doesn't know.

Mr. Karney's mussel proposal has drawn support from Chilmark selectman Warren Doty.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Doty made his living buying and selling seafood wholesale from the Vineyard. He ran Menemsha Basin Seafood and operated a loading operation off Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. He closed his business when it became too difficult and time consuming. Fish stocks were declining and regulations were increasing.

Since then, Mr. Doty has been a strong advocate of maintaining the commercial fishing operations that continue in Menemsha.

Early last year, the Chilmark selectmen held meetings with fishermen. The idea of having Mr. Langan come and meet with the local fishermen came out of a meeting between the Chilmark selectmen and Mr. Karney.

Now that Mr. Doty has learned more about aquaculture, he is thinking of coming out of retirement.

"I think mussel aquaculture could bring new possibilities to the fishing industry here and it could be attractive enough to get me back into it," he said.