NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

NOAA Flexes Mussels for Tracking Pollution


This is a post by Gunnar Lauenstein at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment.

Zebra mussel sampling in the the Great Lakes.

NOAA researchers Cliff Cosgrove and Gunnar Lauenstein collect samples of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes by using an epibenthic dredge. Credit: Andrew Yagiela (NOAA GLERL).

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.

Analyzing mussel tissue samples at the lab.

Researchers at the TDI-Brooks lab in College Station, Texas performing a silica and alumina cleanup of tissue samples collected through the Mussel Watch Program. Credit: Brad Bernard.

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.

Collecting mussels in New York Harbor after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

NOAA researcher Gunnar Lauenstein and Todd Chamberlin, TDI-Brooks, collecting mussels in the rocks around Governor’s Island in New York Harbor during December 2001, three months after the attack on the World Trade Center. Credit: Roger Fay (TDI-Brooks).

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.

Mussel Watch stations in the Gulf of Mexico

Each mussel symbol shows where Mussel Watch sampled in the Gulf of Mexico before and after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Click for larger view. Source: NOAA.

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.

Gunnar Lauenstein takes a break during sampling in the Great Lakes. Credit: NOAA/COAST Branch.

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

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

2 thoughts on “NOAA Flexes Mussels for Tracking Pollution

  1. This sort of thing makes me wonder if I should be eating muscles.

  2. Pingback: Changes Over Time: How NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program is Adapting to the Needs of Coastal Communities | Coastal Ocean Science Blog

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