This is a post by Gunnar Lauenstein at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment.
Mussels and oysters are a great natural tool for finding pollutants in the environment because they filter tiny food bits—along with fine pollutants—out of the surrounding water. They are capable of concentrating contaminants in their body tissues at levels up to 100,000 times above those in the water. This makes our job easier when we’re trying to determine whether those contaminants pose a threat to human health.
These useful traits of shellfish led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to start the first two national Mussel Watch programs. In 1965, the EPA began collecting mussels and oysters from around the U.S. to determine where pesticides such as DDT [leaves this blog] were concentrated in the environment. The second national program, funded by the EPA from 1976-1978, built on that previous work but broadened the list of pollutants studied to include trace elements, oil-related compounds, and radionuclides.
I’ve been involved with the NOAA Mussel Watch Program since NOAA took over from the EPA in 1986. I’m responsible for sample collection, methods documentation, and program direction.
The NOAA program expanded the 100 or so original EPA sample sites to more than 300 current sites. The additional sites increased the density of the areas covered in the Mussel Watch Program, particularly in Alaska and California. Starting in 1992, the program also expanded its range by sampling the infamous non-native zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.
Initially, NOAA intended to use the Mussel Watch Program to study how effective environmental management activities were as a result of 1970s-era legislation. The NOAA Mussel Watch Program successfully documented and tracked decreases of the pollutants DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) [leaves this blog] across the country through at least 2005. Since then, NOAA has added new contaminants to the watch list and also describes the overall health of the organisms being collected for study.
In recent years, the Mussel Watch Program has increased its collaboration both in and outside of NOAA in response to disasters by helping to determine the extent of environmental change. The program sampled New York Harbor after the events of 9/11 [PDF], after the passage of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina along the Gulf Coast [PDF, pg. 23], and more recently before, during, and after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. The Office of Response and Restoration uses this data to help determine the effects of oil spills on the environment, comparing the levels of oil compounds found before and after spills. This helps zero in on hotspots for cleanup.
In addition to the national Mussel Watch programs, the concept has also expanded to regional and local levels, such as in Snohomish County, Wash. [leaves this blog], as well as across Washington state [leaves this blog], where Office of Response and Restoration ecologist Alan Mearns has helped bring in citizen scientists to sample mussels for pollutants such as flame retardants along the Washington coast. NOAA has expanded this level of collaboration to include most of the coastal states. States and other local organizations are now responsible for collecting samples and making recommendations about where new study sites need to be established. As a result, local citizens and state agencies are taking more ownership of the pollution data in their areas.
If you’re interested in learning more about NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program or other research happening at NCCOS, I’ll be blogging at the Coastal Ocean Science Blog at
Gunnar Lauenstein is Acting COAST Branch Chief at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment [leaves this blog]. Dr. Lauenstein leads NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program [leaves this blog] at NCCOS and led a team of researchers to sample and collect mussels and oysters throughout the Gulf region before, during, and after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. You can contact him at email@example.com.