Volunteers gathering mussels not for meals but to gauge health of shoreline waters

EDMONDS — On the jetty at Brackett’s Landing this past week, volunteers pried mussels from barnacle-encrusted boulders using serrated table knives.

The tiny black bivalves dislodged to crinkling sounds on a frigid afternoon were too puny for any self-respecting chef to serve up on a steaming plate. No, these mussels were headed for Ziploc bags and a cooler for an eventual trip to a Texas lab. There, scientists plan to sample their tissues for more than 100 contaminants, including fossil-fuel byproducts, industrial chemicals and heavy metals. The aim is to identify pollution that often comes from common sources such as creosote-treated logs and flame retardants.

The Edmonds volunteers were among a half-dozen groups in Snohomish County aiding a yearly national research project.

“We should have a good snapshot once we get the data of where the pollution trends are all over the Puget Sound,” said Alan Mearns, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist who was volunteering.

NOAA has conducted its Mussel Watch program since the 1980s and now monitors about 300 coastal sites throughout the country.

The research focuses on water quality, not whether the mussels are safe to eat. For the record, the state Department of Health has closed Snohomish County’s urban shoreline to shellfish harvesting. That’s mainly because of harmful bacteria, not the potential for metals and man-made compounds that are the focus of the NOAA study.

The Mussel Watch program since 1986 has included a site at Everett Harbor. It has expanded to a half-dozen spots in Snohomish County. Throughout Puget Sound and along the Washington coast, there are about two dozen spots in all.

Other Mussel Watch spots in Snohomish County are Hat Island, Kayak Point, Hermosa Point and a Port Gardner Channel beach near the Cemex factory in north Everett. A spot near the Mukilteo ferry dock lacked enough mussels for sampling this year.

NOAA, the Tulalip Tribes and the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee are paying to monitor two sites each. It costs about $2,600 per site with most of the money going toward lab fees.

These days, state, local and tribal governments have teamed up with federal agencies in the effort. The work in Snohomish County gets done thanks largely to volunteers with the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee, an appointed group that advises local governments on marine issues. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2010 began using Snohomish County’s volunteer model throughout the state.

“It’s one of our more popular volunteer programs,” said Kathleen Herrmann, a Snohomish County employee who coordinates the group’s work.

The federal program allows scientists to gauge normal pollution levels. That’s useful for measuring the effects of oil spills and other environmental accidents. Mussel sampling helped authorities understand the effects of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s excellent because we’re keeping track of contaminants,” said volunteer Debra Simecek-Beatty, a NOAA physical scientist who works on pollutant modeling. “But if we had a spill here, we could look at the background data before the spill.”

The monitoring spot at Brackett’s Landing, near the Edmonds ferry dock, began in 2004, after an oil spill about two miles to the south. In that December 2003 incident, some 4,700 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled into Puget Sound at Point Wells as it was being pumped from a fuel terminal to a barge. Turns out, much of the oil washed ashore at the terminal or drifted west to the opposite side of the Puget Sound, rather than north toward Edmonds.

State and local efforts have helped identify possible origins of contaminants, including stormwater runoff, airborne pollutants and sediment. Some metals, including arsenic and copper, occur naturally in marine environments.

Mussels survive by filtering the surrounding water. They’re excellent subjects for studying pollution, in part because they concentrate contaminants at up to 100,000 times of their presence in the surrounding water. Their short lifespan assures scientist they’re getting recent information from tissue samples.

Scientists value the mussel data for what it says about contamination along the shoreline.

“That’s of particular interest because of stormwater effects,” said Jim West, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientist who monitors toxic contaminants in Western Washington waters.

Researchers study other animals to learn about different marine areas. Herring can indicate the health of open waters. English sole give clues to what things are like at the bottom of the sea.

Back in Edmonds last week, oceanographer Lincoln Loehr warned his four fellow volunteers to don latex gloves before collecting their mussels.

“We don’t want to become part of the database,” he said.

They headed out to three separate spots on the rocks to fill small, plastic tubs with more than 100 half-inch-long critters.

Once the samples reach the lab, the results won’t likely be available for a year or longer.

“It’s not really a program where you can react to things in a timely manner,” Loehr said.

A study using Snohomish County mussel data through 2009 came out in June. It noted increases in some pollutants during winter sampling, when the weather is wetter, compared with the dry summer months. That suggests stormwater could be carrying pollution to marine waters. The study also said marine water quality for metals does not appear to be a problem.

Local sampling also shows differences in contamination between rural and urban parts of Snohomish County, with lower levels around Port Susan than in areas south of the Snohomish River.

Results from the winter 2010 sampling are expected soon.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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