Late at night when the tide is low enough, an army of volunteers will fan out along Puget Sound and help anchor cages of native Penn Cove mussels near the shore.
Starting Oct. 26, the cages will go into 73 spots around Puget Sound. Eight of those will be in Whatcom County, with California Creek where it flows into Drayton Harbor as the farthest point to the north and Clark’s Point in Chuckanut Bay the southernmost spot.
The cages will be put in over seven days, and the mussels will stay there until February 2016. Their job is to help scientists find out what contaminants are washing from land into the sound during fall and winter, when Western Washington is wet.
The bivalves also will show how well efforts to protect Puget Sound against stormwater pollution are working over time.
“They give you a pretty good picture of what’s out there,” said Jennifer Lanksbury, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who is overseeing the project.
Stormwater is rain and melted snow that runs off hard surfaces — rooftops, paved streets, highways, parking lots — and into local waterways instead of soaking into the ground. It carries pollutants like oil, fertilizers, chemicals and pet waste into the water, which is why officials say stormwater is the leading contributor of pollution in urban waterways in the state.
A new study found that stormwater that runs off urban roads is deadly to salmon.
Fish and Wildlife is leading the mussels monitoring project for the state’s Regional Stormwater Monitoring Program, which gets funding from those paying for municipal stormwater permits. The program is part of the state Department of Ecology.
“Puget Sound looks really nice. We enjoy looking at the water,” said Brandi Lubliner, head of the Stormwater Monitoring Program. “Just below the surface there’s a lot going on in Puget Sound. We need to be cognizant of efforts that we’re making to clean up stormwater. This is going to be a study that helps us track over time how well we’re doing.”
The large-scale effort follows a pilot project in the winter of 2012-13. Like that one, it will be a collaboration with tribes, counties, cities, nonprofits and their volunteers.
“Once again we have an army of citizen-science volunteers who will deploy and retrieve the cages for us,” Lanksbury said.
The Stormwater Monitoring Program is funding about 40 sites, which were randomly selected shorelines in urban growth areas, for this monitoring project. The remainder are being paid for by other organizations that wanted to monitor areas of interest to them.
The mussels are being donated by Penn Cove Shellfish on Whidbey Island.
“Being a shellfish farmer, we can’t farm shellfish in dirty water,” said Ian Jefferds, co-owner and general manager of Penn Cove Shellfish. “Knowing which waters are clean and which ones are dirty and what’s affecting the waters is important to us.”
Mussels are being used for the monitoring project because they live in near-shore habitats, the space between the land and the waters of Puget Sound.
“They’re in the right location,” Lanksbury said.
Theirs is a primitive system, so contaminants in the water stay in their tissue.
“They’re like active water samplers and they don’t metabolize those contaminants,” Lanksbury said, adding that they reflect the contaminants that are in an area for two to four months.
Penn Cove mussels, also known as the bay mussel or the foolish mussel, will be put into bags and suspended inside cages. The cages are closed to keep out mussel-eating predators. Each cage will hold 64 mussels, each about the same size and roughly 11 months old.
“It’s all about having a uniform starting population,” Lanksbury said.
When the mussels are retrieved in February, their tissue will be analyzed in a lab and the results tracked as part of ongoing monitoring.
“If you don’t monitor, you don’t know if it’s getting better or not,” said Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.