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Mussels – Clams

Mussels – Clams
By Ranger Steve Mueller

Shells on the beach come to mind when you think of clams and maybe even pearls. What we don’t think about is how they siphon water in and out to filter feed on algae, bacteria, and detritus. Clams are a mussel.

We might wonder how their nature niche is significant to our lives. Do they affect our pocketbook? Should we give them the time of day for our thoughts and behavior? What difference do they make in our daily lives?

Clams or mussels depend on fish for survival and fish depend on them for survival but that’s a different subject. Direct economic cost is an important concern. Loss of native mussels reduces fish populations for both commercial and recreation businesses. 

Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the Great Lakes. 
Photo by GerardM – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Dreissena_polymorpha.

Mussels might seem unimportant to our lives but they are important economically. That is a self-centered approach for valuing the lives of others but that is how we tend to behave. 

They live in a different world from us but they are not remote from our daily lives. Like us they depend on oxygen but they obtain it through gills. They live in standing water like lakes referred to as lentic or in flowing water like streams referred to as lotic. Usually they live in coarse material like sand and gravel instead of silt, clay, or muck. 

Why give attention to their lives? First their lives matter because they are a fellow citizen in the ecosystem. What are other reasons they should matter to us? For many the question is economically driven. 

We allowed Zebra mussels to enter the Great Lakes about 30 years ago and that one species cost US citizens billions of dollars. They first appeared near Detroit and rapidly spread, disrupting the lives of native clams and our public water systems.

The Grand Rapids water intake pipes in Lake Michigan became clogged by zebra mussels and it became expensive to keep the intake pipes open to supply Grand Rapids with water. A chlorine drip system is needed to kill the exotic mussels to prevent pipe clogging. A similar problem exists for power companies that need water for cooling at power plants. Zebra mussels block and reduce water flow. Who pays the cost for treatment? Everyone that uses water in GR or uses electric energy. Billions of dollars are diverted from what you might have spent differently for personal use 30 years ago. 

We no longer allow discharge of ballast water from ships without first treating it. Ballast water is how zebra mussels are thought to have entered the Great Lakes. Shipping companies do not want to pay for protecting the Great Lakes or other water bodies even though that cost is less than that created by exotic species entering the ecosystem. It is less expensive for people to pay more for shipped products than to allow ships to release exotics into ecosystems.

25 species of mussels are on the Endangered Species list for various reasons. There are efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act or eliminate it but economic cost to households would skyrocket with such short-sighted action. Exotic zebra mussels filter excessive algae, bacteria, and detritus that support invertebrate populations that in turn support fish populations. If you eat fish or go sportfishing, it is wise to support the Endangered Species Act that helps protect native species and retains more money for other family uses.  

We have seen the ongoing problem with lake trout survival that resulted from sea lamprey introduction. Exotic plants are causing economic losses. The potential of Asian Carp entering the Great Lakes is a major ongoing threat. Zebra mussels are only one example affecting our lives. If for only economic reasons, it is important to keep exotics from Great Lakes Waters. If is equally important to protect native species because their lives matter for maintaining healthy ecosystem functioning. Congress recently passed a Great Lakes funding bill.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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