MARINE LIFE by Joanne Huemoeller


Mussels, wild or cultured, collected or purchased, simmered in cioppino or steamed with garlic and wine and served with crusty bread. It doesn’t really matter. A love affair exists in the Pacific Northwest with these tender-shelled morsels.

But there is a story to be told that begins long before a mussel reaches any Pacific Northwesterner’s plate.

Marine Life Mussels

It’s a Hard Life
Mussels live along the ocean’s edge in communities that include other sessile organisms, creatures that cannot or do not move once settled. These animals depend on the ocean’s surge to deliver oxygen and food, remove waste, and prevent the drying effects of desiccation.

Life isn’t always easy here, but mussels have adapted well. They tightly close their shells to keep their gills moist during low tides. They pump gallons of water a day over their gills, straining out and consuming tiny plankton. And they secrete strong fibers, called byssal threads, securely attaching themselves to rocks, pilings, and other mussels.

Blues and Californias
Mussels are bivalves, animals whose bodies are enclosed between two hinged shells. Freshwater and saltwater species thrive worldwide. The two most common species in the Pacific Northwest are the smooth-shelled blue mussel and the ribbed-shelled California mussel. These species do coexist, but generally, the blue mussel prefers protected waters while the California mussel favors the pounding surf of exposed coastal waters. The California mussel, with a shell up to 10 inches in size, grows larger than the blue,whose shell rarely grows to six inches.

Mussels, and in particular, California mussels, dominate the rocky intertidal, overpowering competitors and forming extensive beds. As the bed spreads out, it thickens, the result of young mussels settling on and attaching to older mussels. These huge beds provide rich, multi-layered shelters for more than just mussels. Young sea urchins, sea stars, worms, and a variety of crabs and barnacles all inhabit the nooks and crannies of the mussel bed.

Tug of Nature
Jeopardy accompanies these expanding beds. Imagine the mussel attached to rock beneath the bed, the one responsible for holding the whole community in place. Imagine the weight and pressure it must bear. Eventually, a well-placed wave will be powerful enough to cause that mussel and its neighbors to lose their grip. When that happens, large chunks of the bed and the community it supports are washed away.
Disruption on such a scale reduces the size and spread of the bed. But the expansion of a mussel bed is influenced by additional factors. The upper reaches are restricted to the middle intertidal zones, where individuals will spend at least part of each day below the tide line. The high intertidal is too dry. The lower reaches of the mussel bed receive plenty of water, but there, a keystone predator, the ochre star, limits mussel spread into the subtidal.

Voracious as the ochre star is, there are other mussel predators. Gulls and oystercatchers, shell-boring snails, fish, crabs, and sea stars dine on mussels. As if that is not enough, there is also the human factor.

Writer–photographer Joanne Huemoeller specializes in marine life subjects of the Pacific Northwest. Her education and marine science background led to the publication of her work in books, magazines, and calendars.


We all know how easily nature’s balance can be thrown off. Removing any organism will have a domino effect on the entire community: the more individuals that are removed, the larger the ripple. So, local and state authorities monitor when and where mussels can be harvested. They set limits that regu-late the size of the take. These are important regulations. If you go collecting, follow them.

State and local regulations do not address the etiquette of harvesting, how to diminish your mark on the intertidal. If you collect, respect the fragile beauty there. Step lightly, and take only what you will use. You don’t want it to be your careless step that causes that poor mussel at the bottom of the bed to lose its grip, exposing the entire community to destruction.

Once you’ve done your harvesting, an exemplary model of how to collect responsibly, and you are back with your bounty, you must scrub your take before you can feast. Remove sand, grime, and the beard, the byssal threads that provided the mussel’s grip. Once clean, steam the mussels quickly and only until their shells pop open. Discard those whose shells do not open.

You’ve just learned the story that comes before the bite. Now you’re ready to experience the why behind the love affair. Enjoy!


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