Call it the mollusk version of a canary in a coal mine. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a pilot pro- gram last fall strategically placing cages of blue mussels along Washington's marine shoreline, including 10 spots in Whatcom County. Those mussels are now being tested to pinpoint marine toxins.
Why mussels? Ubiquitous throughout Puget Sound, mussels are hardy filter feeders, taking in and filtering the surrounding water including any contaminants through their bodies. Toxins are stored in their tissues, making them ideal for measuring pollution.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began its own mussel studies in 1986, monitoring the U.S. coast and the Great Lakes.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife, plus other state groups and volunteers, have helped collect mussels for the national program for many years.
But the every-other-year national studies include a smaller sample of Washington waters, with only two sites in Whatcom County. The new state pro- gram, made possible by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, expands the state study to 108 sites in Western Washington.
The study uses caged mussels all the same age and size, and all from the same Whidbey Island hatchery rather than naturally occurring ones. With the same background chemical signature, any changes in their tissues can be more clearly attributed to their cage location.
"Once we got the EPA funding, we could sample at 60 monitoring sites," says Jennifer Lanksbury, a fish and wildlife biologist with the state. "But we have a small staff and knew we'd need volunteers to help."
By spreading the word through a series of summer workshops, the program land- ed enough volunteers to nearly double the number of monitoring sites.
"There's no way we could have done all the sampling without the 'citizen science' component," Lanksbury says.
During low tide on a cold rainy night in November, volunteers placed cages with bags of about 65 mussels at the designat- ed spots, then returned during the next two months to ensure the cages were undisturbed. In January, the mussels were sent to a Seattle lab for detailed testing for more than 100 toxins.
Melissa Roberts of the Whatcom Marine Resources Committee helps as a local organizer for the national program and worked closely with the city of Bellingham and with Fish and Wildlife to select the county's cage sites and organ- ize the fieldwork.
"We were able to tweak the locations so they made sense from a local perspective," she says. "A lot of this sort of work goes on in more urbanized areas and I was really happy that Whatcom County got a lot of sites and was able to get some attention."
More than a dozen volunteers helped to place, monitor and retrieve cages at Point Whitehorn, Birch Point, Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, the west side of Bellingham Bay, Little Squalicum Creek, Squalicum Harbor and Post Point.
Lab tests are now under way. Mussels are measured to compare growth rates, then the shells are removed and the mus- sels' reproductive health is examined. Finally, the mussels' tissues are ground up and used as a medium for a spate of tests for chemicals, toxins, heavy metals and other pollutants. Test results, expected this fall, will be posted at wdfw.wa.gov.
Stacee Sledge is a freelance writer in Bellingham.