Jeanette Howard, associate director of science for fresh water for The Nature Conservancy in California
Jeanette Howard, our associate director of science for fresh water, has spent the past 15 years (off and on) studying mussels, seeking to better understand their role in the river ecosystem. The work requires diving into the best—and worst—of the state’s rivers, from the pristine to the polluted. Yet Dr. Howard feels lucky to work with rivers: “In California, our water is gold. It’s precious.”
“They were once the backbone of the button industry, but the advent of plastic rendered freshwater mussel harvesting nearly obsolete,” says Jeanette Howard.
It was like a fighter’s one-two punch: As commercially raised mussels took their hit, wild freshwater mussels were next to receive a serious blow. Once accounting for the largest presence—whether plant or animal—in some streams, their numbers have dramatically dwindled.
Diminishing fish populations—these mussels rely on fish as hosts for their larvae—and increasingly polluted waters have taken their toll on these essential bivalves.
“Freshwater mussels play a little-known role in our daily lives,” says Howard. “They sit at the bottom of rivers for years, filtering and cleaning our waters much like oysters do in estuaries. They even absorb parasites like giardia.”
And if that’s not enough, they produce a compost-like material that nourishes other stream animals, contributing to the overall health of our freshwater systems.
Howard is teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service on the first-ever comprehensive statewide mussel study. Slipping into her wetsuit, snorkel and mask, she’s busy diving at historical sites dating back to the mid-1800s to assess our freshwater mussel population.
In 75 percent of the places Howard has investigated, mussel populations are still present. Unfortunately, many of southern California’s streams are barren, due to development, pollution or cement.
Most reassuring is that Howard is discovering that those streams and rivers that have been protected have amazingly robust mussel populations.
“Protecting and restoring our waterways is working!” exclaims Howard. “Of the more than 100 sites I’ve surveyed, the Conservancy sites have the greatest abundance and diversity of mussels throughout the state.”
“Freshwater mussels are important in this state, where our water is so precious. They benefit from all our planning and protection efforts. And they, in turn, help so many other creatures, including us.”
March 12, 2013