Mussels Reveal Impact of Puget Sound Stormwater

Bay Mussels

Native mussels (Mytilus trossulus) like these were used to evaluate the degree of contamination in Puget Sound nearshore habitats. Photo: Brewbooks

The mission of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. An important initiative is evaluating the impacts to nearshore aquatic areas from stormwater discharges. Mussels sieve the water as they feed, and their tissues absorb and retain chemicals and pathogens, so the WDFW led a study using mussels as an indicator organism. They got help from so many organizations and volunteers, the list fills nearly an entire page. It includes the Snohomish County Marine Resources Council (Mike Ehlebracht, Hart Crowser geochemist, volunteers for the MRC), the Washington State Department of Ecology, other governmental agencies, native American tribes, and various non-governmental organizations. The work was funded under the new Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) program that is paid for by municipal stormwater permit holders.

How Was the Study Done?

As part of this study, the WDFW and volunteers placed “clean” caged mussels at over seventy locations across Puget Sound, including highly industrial areas (such as Smith Cove and Salmon Bay), urban areas like the Edmonds waterfront, and rural areas (such as the San Juan Islands). They left the caged mussels in the water for several months, then retrieved them, often in the dark, in cold and blustery weather. They tested them for stormwater-related contaminants including PAHs (produced by burning coal, fossil fuels, wood, and garbage), PCBs (used in electrical apparatuses, surface coatings, and paints; banned in the US in 1979), metals, PBDEs (used in flame retardants), DDTs (insecticides; banned in the US since 1972), and others.

And the Results…

The study showed that stormwater discharges continue to impact the nearshore aquatic environment, particularly in industrial and highly urbanized (paved) areas. PAHs and PCBs were the most ubiquitous, problematic chemicals detected in the mussels, with some of the highest concentrations found in Elliott Bay (particularly Smith Cove).

Puget Sound is a large, complex, and diverse estuary. This data will be critical in determining best management practices and providing recommendations for environmental remediation. The next round of sampling will occur this fall, with updated data available in another year or two.

Download a copy of the Stormwater Action Monitoring 2015/16 Mussel Monitoring Survey: Final Report.

Questions? Contact Mike Ehlebracht.

Placing caged mussels

Snohomish County Marine Resources Council volunteers and staff place caged mussels.