Mussel Watch – Where Science and Volunteerism Meet
By Wayne Huseby, President of Friends of Skagit Beaches
On a recent crisp and very dark December evening, three local volunteers met in the parking lot at the Fidalgo Bay Resort in Anacortes. Pete Haase, Tom Flanagan, and I (Wayne Huseby) were preparing to participate in one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects in the state. The program is called Mussel Watch. Pete and I are members of the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizens Stewardship Committee (FBARCSC) and Tom is a recent graduate (2017) of the Salish Sea Stewards program at Padilla Bay. Both Pete and I participated in the biennual event two years ago so we knew what to expect. For Tom, this was a new experience.
Some Background and History
The idea of using live bivalves like mussels and oysters to determine the concentration levels of various contaminants was pioneered by the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back in 1965. At that time, the primary focus was determining where pesticides such as DDT were concentrated in the environment. A later program (1976-1978) funded by the EPA expanded the list of pollutants studied to include trace elements, oil‑related compounds, and radionuclides. In 1986, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started what we now call the Mussel Watch Program. It is the longest running continuous contaminant monitoring program of its kind in the United States. The NOAA program expanded the 100 or so original EPA sample sites to several hundred sites by 2010. The additional sites increased the density of the areas covered, particularly in Alaska and California. Starting in 1992, the program expanded to include the infamous non-native zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Primarily due to budgetary constraints, the federal NOAA Mussel Watch program has been dormant since 2012. However, since most states have adopted the program, including Washington, it continues to grow and expand. Today, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) manages the program.
Because mussels are filter feeders, extracting tiny bits of food, along with the pollutants out of the surrounding water, their tissues can be studied in a laboratory to determine the level of pollutants in the surrounding environment. They are capable of concentrating contaminants up to 100,000 times ambient levels found in the surrounding water. In effect, their tissues act as an amplifier making the job of detecting and measuring contaminants much easier.
Value of the Data
The value of the Mussel Watch data sets can’t be overstated. The data has been used to assess the effects of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and environmental disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In Washington State, the datasets are being used to support various scientific studies and initiatives. An example is the Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) program, a collaborative effort funded by over 90 western Washington municipalities, ports, and governmental agencies to reduce pollution, improve water quality, and reduce flooding. In addition, the data has and will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of both nearshore and upland remediation and mitigation projects.
Need for Citizen Scientist Volunteers
Beginning in the early 2000’s, NOAA began to involve volunteer citizen scientists to assist with the large scale mussel deployment and collection/retrieval process. They recognized that it was the only practical and cost effective way to collect, deploy, and retrieve mussels from hundreds of sites in a very short time frame. In 2007, the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) worked with NOAA, state, and county agencies to use local volunteers versus paid professionals to collect mussel samples from several sites in the county. The idea was a success and was subsequently used in the Washington State 2009/2010 Mussel Watch Pilot Project, a collaborative effort involving federal, state, county, and tribal organizations. The result of the pilot was a significant reduction in the labor required of professional staff to perform field operations, saving the state thousands of dollars.
Unlike the original NOAA program whereby live mussels were collected from the study sites, the current WDFW protocol calls for deploying farm raised mussels from Penn Cove in wired cages at the 0.0 tide line. The shift to using cages began with the WDFW Mussel Watch Expansion Project in 2012. The caged protocol was deemed more sustainable and would allow for more sites to be surveyed. Volunteers are also used to help with the preparation of the mussel cage “kits” at Penn Cove. Tom Flanagan was one of those volunteers. Here are some of Tom’s observations and thoughts on that experience:
“The project was structured to last over 5 days with morning and afternoon shifts for each day. I opted for afternoon shifts on a Sunday and Tuesday from 1:00 to 4:30 pm. We all met at the parking lot of the Coupeville library on a cold, windy and wet Sunday afternoon whereupon we all piled into a van and were driven to the Penn Cove shellfish farms facility on the water. We were divided up into crews of 2 for each stage of the process. My crew was sorting the mussels. The mussels were contained in what appeared to be a ~60 gal drum that was cut in half. My partner and I would scoop out a colander full of mussels and go through the process of sizing them as well as making sure they were viable. We had clever little gauges for determining the correct size range. We then moved the good critters to a bowl that was further scrutinized by the next crew who checked our initial sort placing the good product into groups of 10 mussels. Subsequent crews prepared net stockings placing the 10 mussels in each sock. The socks were then placed in a cooler with ice to be transported to one of the study sites. We ended up filling 450 socks all together!
The work was somewhat tedious but not difficult or uncomfortable Jennifer Lanksbury, Mussel Watch lead for WDFW was very encouraging and appreciative of our work. Although the project was scheduled to finish on Wednesday, we were able to wrap up on Tuesday. I would most certainly participate in this project again (even with the 1.5hr roundtrip). I would encourage other Salish Sea Stewards who are particularly interested in doing field work to check out the WDFW website for volunteer opportunities”. – Tom Flanagan – SSS Class of 2017
Deploying the Mussel Cages
Pete Haase had made prior arrangements with one of the Washington Conservation Corps teams to pick up a Mussel Watch “kit” from Penn Cove and deliver it to Padilla Bay that afternoon. Since these are live mussels, it was important that they be deployed as quickly as possible once leaving the Penn Cove facility, no more than 12 hours per protocol. With “kit”, flashlights, GPS, camera, and datasheets in hand, Pete, Tom, and I set off for the end of Weaverling Spit where the cage was to be deployed. We were provided with the GPS coordinates to locate the cage.
Since the cage was to be deployed at the 0.0 tide, we needed to be at the deployment location at least 10-15 minutes before the tide. The once the tide reached 0.0, the first thing we did was install the auger (anchor) that would ensure the cage remained in its deployed position (we will be back in 3 months to retrieve the mussels!). Since Weaverling Spit is fairly sandy, the task was not too difficult but you have to know which way to turn the auger! Once the anchor was installed, the four (4) mussel socks, each with 10 mussels inside, were suspended inside the cage near the top using zip ties. Tom proved to be a master at that task! The reason for the suspension is to prevent predation. At this point, the top of the cage was installed with more zip ties and 3 rebar stakes were used to further anchor the cage. Finally, we took some photographs of the installation and entered all the pertinent information on the datasheet. The deployment went well and we expect to find and retrieve the cage in early March. We hope! – Wayne Huseby