On a recent sunny day, a group of volunteers were bundled up to insulate against the brisk winds that whipped across Penn Cove.
The graduates of the 2012 class of Washington State University Island County Extension Beach Watchers dipped their gloved hands into bowls of cold water and pulled mollusk after mollusk out to take measurements.
Over the course of almost two weeks in late October, the volunteers packaged approximately 7,500 mussels from Penn Cove for delivery.
Unlike ones destined for the plates and bowls of hungry eaters, these mussels will return to Washington waters to continue filter feeding as part of a research project to learn more about the health of the state’s marine environment.
This study conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will allow scientists to determine the extent and magnitude of near-shore contamination, said Project Manager Jennifer Lanksbury.
It will also establish a baseline, something that is especially important should a disaster occur.
The data will also be provided to state legislators, the decision makers whose choices can impact the health of nearshore waters, Lanksbury said.
Ian Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville donated native Penn Cove mussels for the project.
Four mesh bags will be installed in each predator-proof test cage at 113 research locations. A grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency paid for 60 of the sites, and the remainder were sponsored by outside groups for $1,300 per site.
“This was a booming success,” said Lanksbury about asking for involvement. “We doubled our capacity.”
After about 10 days of rest in Penn Cove’s familiar waters to recover from handling, the mussels will be ready for transfer.
For two months, from mid-November through mid-January, the mussels will live as mussels do — they will open their shells a bit to let in some water, and filter out food.
In the study, everything will be kept constant except for the location they will be placed, and as a result, the water quality they will live in.
And while chowing-down, they will be ingesting everything — both good and bad — in the water. The two months gives the mollusks ample time to ingest any chemicals in their surroundings.
The mussels will be tested for contaminants such as pesticides, flame retardants, oil and metals, like mercury.
Jefferd’s contribution will travel throughout the Puget Sound region, with eight test cages remaining in waters off of Whidbey Island and two near Camano Island.
One of those sites will be at the Coupeville Wharf.
More than 30 volunteer organizations helped out, Lanksbury said.