On a recent sunny day, a group of volunteers were bundled up to insulate against the brisk winds that whipped across Penn Cove.
The graduates of the 2012 class of Washington State University Island County Extension Beach Watchers dipped their gloved hands into bowls of cold water and pulled mollusk after mollusk out to take measurements.
The mussels like it cool.
After checking and double-checking that the animal measured between 50 to 60 mm long, another volunteer placed 16 of these creatures into a numbered mesh bag.
Over the course of almost two weeks in late October, the volunteers packaged approximately 7,500 mussels from Penn Cove for delivery.
Unlike ones destined for the plates and bowls of hungry eaters, these mussels will return to Washington waters to continue filter feeding as part of a research project to learn more about the health of the state’s marine environment.
This study conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will allow scientists to determine the extent and magnitude of near-shore contamination, said Project Manager Jennifer Lanksbury.
It will also establish a baseline, something that is especially important should a disaster occur. In the case of an oil spill, like the one that happened in Penn Cove in May, the data would provide scientists and recovery groups a comparison on how things should be and current conditions.
The data will also be provided to state legislators, the decision makers whose choices can impact the health of nearshore waters, Lanksbury said.
Ian Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville donated native Penn Cove mussels for the project.
“He was phenomenally generous,” said Lanksbury, adding that Jefferds also chipped in bags and ice.
Four mesh bags will be installed in each predator-proof test cage at 113 research locations. A grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency paid for 60 of the sites, and the remainder were sponsored by outside groups for $1,300 per site.
“This was a booming success,” said Lanksbury about asking for involvement. “We doubled our capacity.”
After about 10 days of rest in Penn Cove’s familiar waters to recover from handling, the mussels will be ready for transfer.
On a low-tide night, volunteers from all over the region will head to the cove to pick up coolers filled with bagged mussels and distribute them to test sites.
For two months, from mid-November through mid-January, the mussels will live as mussels do — they will open their shells a bit to let in some water, and filter out food.
In the study, everything will be kept constant except for the location they will be placed, and as a result, the water quality they will live in.
And when chowing-down, they will be ingesting everything — both good and bad — in the water. The two months gives the mollusks ample time to ingest any chemicals in their surroundings.
Once picked up by volunteers at the end of the test period, these aquatic vacuum cleaners will be shucked and 30 specimens from the same cage ground up together. This composite will be tested for contaminants such as pesticides, flame retardants, oil and metals, like mercury.
Jefferd’s contribution will travel throughout the Puget Sound region, with eight test cages remaining in waters off of Whidbey Island and two near Camano Island. One of those sites will be at the Coupeville Wharf.
The state got involved in the national Mussel Watch program the winter of 2009-2010 when the program struggled financially and sought out cooperation from the states to help collect the samples. The national program, managed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been collecting data since 1986.
The pilot expansion program branches off from the national one, and significantly increases the range and number of the testing sites, Lanksbury said.
Barbara Bennett, coordinator for the Island County Beach Watchers, said that she was proud of the Beach Watchers’ involvement in this project, which ranged from measuring and bagging to deploying the cages.
More than 30 volunteer organizations helped out, Lanksbury said.
“Island County Beach Watchers have been the biggest helpers,” she said.