Science News

Scientists work to explain New England’s disappearing mussels

Once plentiful in the Gulf of Maine, the blue mussel of New England is quickly disappearing. According to researchers with the University of California, Irvine, the blue mussel population has declined by 60 percent over the last 40 years.

Ecologists suspect warming temperatures in the gulf — which stretches from Cape Cod to Canada — are to blame for the mussel’s disappearing act.

“The Earth is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, and the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming areas of the global ocean, so the impacts of ocean warming are likely to happen much sooner there,” Cascade Sorte, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCI, said in a news release.

It doesn’t take a scientist to see the changes happening along the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine. Where mussels once dotted the shorelines by the thousands, barnacles and seaweed now dominate.

Ecologists worry the mussel is the canary in the coal mine for the Gulf of Maine, and that their rapid decline could predict — or even precipitate — the loss of other important species.

Gone with the mussels are the environmental benefits of their filter-feeding ways. Like other mollusks, blue mussels help filter contaminants and toxins from the environment.

Previous research efforts have highlighted the growing problems of invasive species and ocean acidification in the Gulf of Maine.

Sorte and her colleagues are now working to determine how exactly the blue mussel is negatively affected by warming water temperatures and what can be done to protect the population.

“The lesson so far — from what we saw in this study and what others have documented around the world at other warming ‘hot spots’ — is that key foundation species are disappearing, and this can lead to regime shifts and large-scale, even catastrophic, changes in the ecosystem,” Sorte concluded.

The latest analysis of New England’s blue mussel population was detailed this week in the journal Global Change Biology.