Harsh Winter Kills Whatcom Survey Mussels

by Meghan Fenwick

Every other winter, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists and volunteers deploy cages of mussels on Puget Sound nearshore beaches to test water quality. It typically takes six months to a year for lab results to reveal contaminants that the mussels soaked up over their three-month stay.

lab prep -mussels

photo: Robert Fisk, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff prepare the retrieved mussels for analysis. Not much can be inferred by the naked eye, but the magic happens when the mussel-smoothie samples are sent to the lab.

This year, the eight cages in Whatcom County disclosed their status immediately: none of the mussels survived.

“This year was very unique,” said Mariko Langness, WDFW biologist. “We’ve never had something like this happen. We’ve lost cages, but we got all these cages back, and all the mussels were dead.”

Fortunately, the mussels were not overcome with contaminants. They fell victim to a variable that couldn’t be controlled. This winter Whatcom County saw record-breaking, below-freezing temperatures, down to three degrees. Combined with extremely low tides, the mussels were exposed in a way that the program had never before seen. The nearest location where any mussels survived the harsh season was Anacortes.

“That just doesn’t happen in the marine environment of the Pacific Northwest, even in the wintertime,” said Michael Kyte, volunteer for the mussel-watch program. “In the mountains, of course, maybe in the foothills, but on the shoreline? I am shocked, but I’m not really surprised that there was 100 percent mortality in all the cages.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) runs a national mussel-monitoring program, first established in the 1980s. Mussels have a unique ability to absorb contaminants without flushing them out. They are a filter-feeding species, meaning they take in seawater to pick out plankton, bacteria and other nutrients. WDFW’s team retrieves the cages, shucks the mussels, and blends them into a mussel smoothie to be analyzed for contaminants.

Faces Behind the Data

WDFW’s mussel-monitoring program contributes to NOAA’s database. Other partners include the Stormwater Action Monitoring (1) collective of the Washington Department of Ecology and The Puget Sound Partnership (2).

Organizations like Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (3) and the Snohomish (4) and Whatcom Marine Resources committees (5) help coordinate the volunteer effort. These groups are invaluable to the program, which has a staff of nine. The volunteer marine enthusiasts become citizen scientists on the cold, moonlit Puget Sound beaches.

“Unfortunately, the tides that we’re aiming for only happen after the dark hours in the winter months,” said WDFW biologist Danielle Nordstrom. “We always hope for a nine o’clock tide, but sometimes the tides run a little late, and it’s an 11 o’clock tide.”

Hundreds of volunteers, split into teams of at least two, travel to about 80 sites every survey year to help deploy and retrieve the mussels from their antipredator cages. The winter season is optimal for low-beach traffic and to avoid high heat. After the go-ahead from WDFW staff, each team, equipped with wading boots, a GPS, a bag of mussels and flashlights, makes its way to their specific coordinates.

“I’ve been trying to get the tides rearranged to my convenience for years, but I just can’t seem to get through to the guy in charge,” said Michael Kyte, who has been volunteering for the mussel watch program since its inception in 2012.

Kyte is a semiretired biologist who travels to the Bellingham area to participate in various citizen-scientist projects, including the mussel-watch survey every winter. While the majority of the volunteers are university students, experienced team members like Kyte bring leadership, local knowledge and a rolodex of ocean-related jokes.

Concerning Chemicals

WDFW’s Toxics Biological Observation System (TBiOS) (6) monitors a wide array of contaminants, including PCBs, PBDEs, PAHs and DDTs. The most common sources of these chemicals are stormwater and wastewater treatment runoff. PCBs and PBDEs get their “p” from “persistent,” as they persist in an organism and work their way up the food chain in a process called biomagnification. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlawed the production of these chemicals in 1978, but because of their extremely popular use in coolants and other electrical equipment, they live on in the environment.

Though Whatcom County will not have any numbers this year, WDFW uses the cumulative data from each study year to determine recovery targets for each area. Many sites in Whatcom County are chosen because they are defined as urban growth areas. Bellingham Bay has a fraught history with water quality, notably marked by Georgia-Pacific’s presence from the 1960s to its closure in 2007.

Before the Clean Water Act in 1972, the pulp mill discharged tons of mercury into the bay. The Georgia-Pacific site has been checked off the Washington Department of Ecology’s 12-site cleanup list, but other sites are still impacted by the legacy chemicals of industries such as landfills and lumber mills.

“For the contaminants that we’re now reporting on, which includes PAHs and PCBs, the Bellingham Bay area is not meeting our recovery target,” Langness said. “But generally, when compared to other areas around Puget Sound and the other urban abatements, the concentrations are lower. They’re not as high places like Elliott Bay and Commencement Bay.”

In the mussel-watch surveys, Whatcom sites have not fallen in either the top or bottom percentiles for contaminants. Whatcom mussels from the 2017-2018 survey saw between 18 and 60 ng/g (nanograms per gram) of PCBs and between 180 and 550 ng/g of PAHs. In comparison, some Puget Sound locations saw 130 ng/g of PCBs and 2,300 ng/g of PAHs.

In a sediment survey of Bellingham Bay, the Department of Ecology found that chemical contamination had overall decreased between 2010 and 2017. All sites met regulatory standards, though some sites increased in PAH contamination. The study also highlighted adverse affects on bottom-dwelling species like mussels, though populations increased across the board.

A subset of the contaminants on WDFW’s radar are chemicals of emerging concern. These include chemicals from pharmaceutical, personal care, and pesticide products. One chemical reaching infamy is called 6PPD-Q, which is used to extend the life of road tires. It is extremely toxic to salmon and other aquatic life.

In the 2021-2022 survey, two sites in Whatcom County were selected, and neither mussel sampling sites contained 6PPD-Q. Though some concerning chemicals were detected at over 95 percent of the survey sites, the concentrations are far below the EPA’s mandates, according to Langness.

Action Beyond the Data

Within WDFW’s toxics monitoring program, Pacific herring, Chinook salmon and English sole are also used as windows into the health of the ecosystem. These indicator species are specific to the places they inhabit. Estuaries, rivers, the deep sea and the nearshore all have unique dynamics between the living and nonliving. Studying an abundant species like mussels can give key insights to the success of the top of their food chain, like the southern resident killer whale.

“We’re not a regulatory agency like the Department of Ecology, we can’t initiate any sort of cleanup for any particular sites,” Langness said. “We hope our data brings attention to certain areas. We like to say that we raise the red flag in some of these spots where we’re continuously seeing high contamination.”

WDFW conducted a survey of juvenile Chinook salmon in estuarine habitat in 2016, and the results led to a further investigation by the Department of Ecology. The survey found that the success of a group of Chinook was jeopardized by high concentrations of PCBs and PBDEs in the Snohomish Delta.

The following investigation was able to identify the source of the pollution and trace it to a wastewater treatment facility in Everett. The Department of Ecology is currently renewing the treatment plant’s discharge permit, and organizations like RE Sources and the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance are advocating for more stringent regulations.

Mussel monitoring, the program’s newest addition, has not yet spurred this kind of change. Langness says she hopes through consistent monitoring, the team can continue to highlight contaminants in our waterways and help reduce them all together.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, you didn’t want to go anywhere near the shoreline in the greater Seattle area,” Kyte said. “Today, industrial pollution has reduced greatly. There’s a lot of awareness for the needs of restoring habitat, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”


  1.  https://ecology.wa.gov/Regulations-Permits/Reporting-requirements/Stormwater-monitoring/Stormwater-Action-Monitoring
  2. https://www.psp.wa.gov/
  3.  https://pugetsoundkeeper.org/
  4.  https://www.snocomrc.org/
  5.  https://www.whatcomcountymrc.org/
  6. https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/science/marine-toxics/tbios


Meghan Fenwick is a graduate of Western Washington University who recently earned her degree in environmental journalism.

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