If you’ve ever gone tide-pooling in New England, or just strolled the shoreline, chances are you’ve seen blue mussels. Sometimes it may just be an empty shell lying on the sand, the animal itself already preyed upon by a bird, or some may still be holding on strong to the rocky substrate.
Blue mussels play an important role in our region’s ocean ecosystem, not only as a food source for seabirds, sea stars, and whelks, but also for filtering the water and cycling toxins. They also serve as an important economic resource for fishermen harvesting from the wild, and entrepreneurs exploring aquaculture production. The AP reports that the dockside value of wild blue mussels peaked in 2013 at $13 million nationally.
Unfortunately, blue mussel populations – a species that once covered two-thirds of the Gulf of Maine’s intertidal zone – have dramatically declined. A new marine ecology study from the University of California at Irvine, highlighted by numerous news sources, found that Gulf of Maine coastal populations of blue mussels have declined more than 60 percent in the last four decades.
The researchers said that the decline is the result of multiple factors: warming ocean temperatures, increased human harvesting, and invasive species. This decline is yet another example of the vulnerability of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Mussels are a sturdy marine animal; they are designed to thrive in harsh intertidal areas where they are regularly exposed to crashing waves, hot sun, and the coming and going of tides.
Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, told the AP that this study shows the clear need for more research on the effects of warming waters and commercial harvesting on mussel abundance. It’s also evidence for the need to protect and strengthen the resiliency of our marine environment.
The Gulf of Maine Needs a Fully Protected Marine Area
At Cashes Ledge, located at the heart of the Gulf of Maine, healthy and thriving mussel beds blanket the sea floor. The mussels are accompanied by abundant Atlantic cod and pollock populations, North Atlantic right whales, and more. One reason why this area thrives is because of the restrictions on harmful commercial fishing practices. The animals and plant life at Cashes Ledge have been able to find refuge in this habitat, where they can breed, feed, and grow. This is an area that deserves to be protected now and forever.
Protecting Cashes Ledge, an area 100 miles of the coast, may not directly benefit our coastal mussel populations, but it will create a long-lasting healthy ecosystem that has a better chance of fighting the impacts of climate change. Additionally, scientists could use this area as an underwater research laboratory where they could study the impacts of warming waters and apply their findings to other areas of the Gulf of Maine, including coastal areas.
The Gulf of Maine is a highly dynamic ecosystem that is interconnected, from the species that live on the seafloor to the species that dive in from above. Humans also have a place in that ecosystem, but our actions have all too often been influenced by industry interests and resource extraction. There isn’t one area in the Gulf of Maine that is fully protected from commercial extractive activities. It is time to change that – it is time to permanently protect Cashes Ledge.