Volunteers can help monitor health of our waters | Noo-Kayet, Our Village

By Rory O'Rourke

The Mussel Watch Program is a nation-wide water-quality monitoring program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Since 1986, it has been crucial in helping scientists and the public learn about the presence and extent of toxic contaminants in the nation’s oceans and bays. In Washington, monitoring of Puget Sound is administered by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Sampling occurs every two years to ensure that the levels of contaminants in Puget Sound are low enough to ensure its waters are still safe for marine life, recreation, fishing, and shellfish harvesting. Recently, the Mussel Watch program has received budget cuts on the state and national level.

In order to adjust, as well as to tap into local knowledge of monitored areas, WDFW has reached out to municipalities, counties, tribes, and environmental organizations. This new outreach has been called the Mussel Watch Pilot Expansion. The success of this program will determine whether the Mussel Watch can continue or if we risk losing one of the nation’s greatest scientific achievements.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe Natural Resources Department has agreed to participate in the Mussel Watch Pilot Expansion this winter and will be tracking cages in Port Gamble Bay and at Point No Point.

There are several reasons why mussels are chosen over other species to measure water quality. Mussels are great biological tools for measuring contaminants in water. They take in water and algae that contain pollutants and do not change the chemical structure of the contaminants that are being measured. Mussels tend to retain pollutants for two to four months, therefore they model the long-term and seasonal variations in water quality.

They serve as a food source for humans and wildlife, therefore it is easier for scientists to calculate the dose that might be ingested. Also, they are small, easy to handle, and can be acquired in large quantities so that scientists can have a large sample size to do statistical analysis.

The Mussel Watch program tests for an extensive array of chemicals. These include PCBs, PBDEs, pesticides, PAHs, metals, general water-quality indicators, and contaminants of emerging concern. In total, the Mussel Watch program tracks about 150 individual chemicals. Any individual group trying to measure the same chemicals on their own would find the laboratory analysis costs to be prohibitively expensive.

PCBs were historically used as a cooling agent in transformers and are banned contaminants because of their ability to cause skin lesions and liver damage. PBDEs are flame retardants that are found in many everyday products and are a concern due to their ability to accumulate in fatty tissue. Pesticides from farm and lawn runoff can cause birth defects and nervous disorders at high enough concentrations.

PAHs are a group of chemicals that can be found in exhaust from gasoline-powered vehicles as well as creosote pilings. Some PAHs have been shown to cause cancer. Metals can have a variety of cancer and non-cancer health effects. Cadmium is an element with a naturally high concentration in shellfish. Arsenic is another naturally occurring element but can be toxic at low concentrations.

Contaminants of concern include bisphenol-A and birth control metabolites. These chemicals have been found to be estrogen antagonists and scientists are only beginning to study how much of these contaminants are in the water and their effect on humans and wildlife.

Continuing the Mussel Watch program will ensure that these chemicals, along with new emerging contaminants, will be studied. Volunteers will be needed periodically during the winter to help place cages, check the cages, and retrieve the mussels at the end of the study. Anyone older than 14 can volunteer once they register on the WDFW Volunteer website:

Also ice, personal vehicle mileage, and ferry fares spent while volunteering will be reimbursed by WDFW. If you are interested in volunteering with Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe to help with the Mussel Watch Pilot Expansion, or if you have any questions, please contact me at (360) 689-7010 or




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