Are fresh mussels from the ocean a thing of the past?


As soon as I was old enough to scramble down to the tidal pools in front of my grandparent’s house in Harpswell, I was in charge of plucking fresh mussels off our front rocks for my grandmother to cook for dinner. I would come up just minutes later to the kitchen with barnacle-scraped feet, carrying buckets of the local delicacy. My Mimi would hand me a few quarters (much below market price I might add) and cook them in a white wine garlic broth served with toasted french bread.

There is a distinct relationship between my childhood and seafood. The sound of cracking open a lobster claw, the slight sting on my fingers as I squeeze a lemon wedge over a filet of cod, or the smell of mussels and broth simmering on the stove fill me with this unmistakable sense of nostalgia from being the barefooted toddler from the Gulf of Maine.

As a child, I took the abundance of our local creatures for granted, because now, close to two-decades later, there isn’t a single mussel to be seen all the way down the rocky peninsula.

In 2016, Maine fishermen caught only 1.8 million pounds of the local creature, compared to the typical 4 million pounds usually caught. There are several factors that may be leading to their demise — increases in toxic algal blooms, stress reactions to warming water temperatures, and shell degradation due to increased acidity of seawater.

Mussels are a humble organism. They do not carry the high economic and international fame that lobsters do, but they deserve to be recognized as an important local species that is slipping through the cracks due to climate change.

Like any species, including humans, consistently living in an environment that is slightly too warm or slightly too cold produces stress reactions, decreases efficiency of immune systems, and leaves the organism very susceptible to disease and predation. Their compromised immune system makes them more vulnerable to toxic algal blooms, and the higher acidity in the water, due to increased carbon dioxide, dissolves their shells.

It is easy for Mainers to not notice the absence of mussels on our granite coastlines, because they are still on the menus of their favorite restaurants. But that is because the mussel industry has shifted to an aquaculture fishery.

We need to combat climate change, not only because these organisms have intrinsic value of just existing within our coastal waters, but also because they have a cultural value. Across coastal New England, ancient Native American grounds and areas of our earliest settlers are littered with the pearlescent blue shells of mussels. The abundance of these bivalves fed our ancestors, and their remains are a part of the literal and figurative foundation of our New England society.

Their presence is a part of the memory of my childhood as well as my relationship with my family. Where will they be for my children? What other organisms will be missing from the tidal pools I spent so many hours playing in and inspired me to study marine science in college and graduate school?

By not creating and upholding policies to combat the cause of their demise — global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels — we are forgetting about the organisms that fed our ancestors and are a major part of our culture.

The mussel is one of dozens of organisms we are at risk of losing. If we don’t urge our elected officials to act now on reducing our greenhouse gas output and taking tangible steps to combat climate change, we will lose much more of our identity as a coastal state than erosion and flooding from rising sea levels.

Madeleine Fenderson is working as the summer organizer for Environment Maine. She recently graduated from Connecticut College, where she studied environmental studies and economics, and will be pursuing her master’s degree in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. She lives in Falmouth.

Madeleine Fenderson