Interview of Tierra Curry ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Tierra Curry. She is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity where she focuses on gaining protections for imperiled species and their habitats. Today we talk about freshwater mussels.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

TC: I am so excited to talk about freshwater mussels. It’s like a biologist’s dream come true.

DJ: That’s good!

My first question was going to be “What are mussels?” and, as well as their being wonderful for their own sake, what do they do for their habitat? But instead, because of what you just said, I want my first question to be “Why is this a biologist’s dream come true?”

TC: They’re so cool, and they’re so imperiled and almost no one knows that they exist. When I started working at the Center for Biological Diversity ten years ago, I was really obsessed with amphibians and reptiles. I was so worried about the frogs and the salamanders and that’s what I wanted to work on. And these projects kept coming up about mollusks, about snails and slugs and mussels. At first I was “I don’t want to work on that. I want to save the salamanders.” And then as I started to learn about these organisms, they just fascinated me and I was so excited to be on your show and do this interview. I spent all weekend reading about them. Even though I’ve been working to protect them for the last ten years, I continue to learn new things about them all the time.

DJ: So…

TC: So what is a freshwater mussel?

DJ: Yeah…

TC: Back to the basics. So a lot of people, if they saw one, wouldn’t even know that it wasn’t a rock. They’re mollusks, so they’re cousins to octopus and squid, in the phylum Mollusca, and to the snails and slugs that people are more familiar with. A lot of people are familiar with marine mussels because they’re food, and so a lot of people enjoy eating those. The freshwater ones don’t taste good, but they look the same. They’re bivalves, so they have this symmetrical shell that folds over, kind of like, you know, there are a lot of cartoons and statues of the marine ones because they’re pretty. Sometimes there’s like a mermaid popping out if them. And so the freshwater ones only live in creeks and rivers and streams. Some of them live in lakes. And they have two valves. So it’s like a shell that folds over and a soft body that’s mostly foot for walking around and then two valves that stick up. And so through those valves, one of them intakes water and the other one expels the water, and by doing that they filter water constantly. And so one of the most important things that they do for humans is they improve the water quality, because to breathe and feed, by sucking in the water all the time, they consume algae and bacteria and pull pollutants out of the water. Unfortunately, they store those pollutants in their bodies. That’s why they’re so endangered. 70% of freshwater mussels are endangered. And 35 species from North America have already gone extinct. Probably more than that, actually. But they just haven’t been declared extinct yet.

DJ: The primary causes of the – the primary threats to them would be, then, pollution, and is sedimentation also a problem? And also are dams a problem?

TC: Absolutely. It sounds like you did some homework about freshwater mussels. Dams are a huge problem. The largest extinction event in modern times in North America was when they dammed the Coosa River in the southeast, and damming that river caused about 40 species of mollusks to go extinct, mostly snails but also five or six mussel species. Dams harm mussels in several different ways. One way is they change the water quality, so they change the temperature and the flow both upstream and downstream of the dam. Another way – freshwater mollusk reproduction is incredibly cool. We’ll talk about that more in a minute. They are dependent on host fish to be able to reproduce. The host fish carry the mussel larvae in their gills. So if we separate the mussels from their host fish then the mussels can’t reproduce anymore. So anything that harms the host fish for the mussels, also harms the mussels. So here in the Pacific Northwest we have a mussel called the western pearlshell, and its host fish are salmon and trout. Anything that harms the salmon also harms the mussels, because the mussels are dependent on the salmon to reproduce.

DJ: So can you tell me a little bit more about how that works? Let’s go through mussel reproduction from early courtship to teenage years, or to adulthood. Let’s go through their whole life cycle.

TC: Great! I would love to. There are three ways that freshwater mussels reproduce. Some of them just leave it to chance and they release their sperm into the water by the million and the females downstream while they’re breathing in the water also just breathe in the sperm, and then they make little mussel babies, and then again leaving it to chance they exhale those little mussel babies and hope that they land on a fish’s gill. And then once they’re on the fish’s gill the baby mussels grow. They’re called glochidia and the glochidia develop on the fish’s gills into perfectly shaped little baby mussels. They’re so cute. They look just like an adult mussel but they’re teeny tiny. And then when they’re ready, they drop off the fish’s gill and whether or not they survive depends on where they land. And so the ones that land on good substrate and in good habitat grow up into adult mussels.

So that’s kind of the most boring way.

DJ: And are they parasitic? Or do they just sort of sit there and filter feed?

TC: They’re parasitic, yeah.

So now we get into the really cool part. Some mussels produce lures to try to trick fish into swimming up to them. The lures are pieces of the mussel’s flesh that they stick out of their shell and wave around in the water column. And these lures are beautiful. Everyone should Google “freshwater mussel lure.” They can look like baby fish, they can look like insects, they can look like crawdads, they can look like worms. They’re very elaborate. And that’s just amazing. The mussels can’t see, right? They don’t know what the fish look like, but over time, the ones who have successfully reproduced have come to mimic juvenile fish really effectively.

DJ: How big are these mussels? How big is this whole thing that’s happening here?

TC: Some mussels get to be about eight inches.

DJ: Oh my God. So some can be big. Great. Thanks.

TC: Yeah, they can be big. Some can be even bigger than that, and some are just a couple of inches. They produce these lures and then the fish swim up to them thinking they’re going to eat a juvenile fish. And the mussels release their glochidia when the fish is close to them. Some of them will actually jump up and clamp onto the fish’s face and hold the fish and release the baby mussels, and then they let the fish go. And the fish swims away having no idea what has happened to it and hosts their babies for them.

And so then the other one – I think those are the coolest ones, the ones that jump and grab the fish. But there are other mussels that produce – they kind of package all their fertilized eggs into a little mucus-covered conglutinates. And then with some of them the conglutinate can be on a stream that they make that’s like ten feet long. So the mussel can be ten feet away from this lure, and then the fish swims up to it and when the fish tries to eat it it explodes and the baby mussels get on the fish’s gills.

And so some mussels have a relationship with only one host fish. They’re dependent on that particular fish. But some mussels can use a bunch of different fish. And one, the salamander mussel, can only use freshwater salamanders. They use a big salamander called a mudpuppy.

Isn’t that coolest thing you’ve ever heard?

DJ: Yeah. The whole time you’re talking I just keep thinking about how in love I am with speciation and with the real world, and how just extraordinary and beautiful and complex it all is. If I were going to set up and create a world, and I was going to make it, I would never think of those things. That’s the word I’m looking for, just how incredibly creative evolution is. I just want to stop for a second, stop talking about mussels for a moment and just mention the absolute wonderful creativity of evolution.

TC: Yeah, nature is so cool. That’s why I love it too. When I was trying to decide if I wanted to be an environmental attorney or a biologist I decided to become a biologist because there were so many really absolutely amazing things to learn about. I feel like law is all these layers of stuff that humans make up and rules built on rules. With biology and science you finally get to a truth. It’s so beautiful and captivating.

DJ: So let’s back up a second. The baby mussels are attached to fish – do all mussels require either fish or salamanders or do some just send out babies hither and yon? Or do they all require fish? Sorry, I don’t remember.

TC: They all require fish, yeah. The babies that are just expelled into the water column have to end up on a fish’s gills on their own.

DJ: Does that partially explain how mussels can inhabit areas that are further upstream, is that they get on the fish and the fish swims upstream for them and they’re a mode of transportation?

TC: Exactly.

DJ: Hmm. Okay. So were there freshwater mussels in all biomes of this continent? Are they in the Everglades and also up in the Arctic or are there some places where they’re not? Naturally not present, as opposed to having been extirpated by this culture.

TC: Globally there are 890 known species and 302 of those are in North America. So North America is a global hotspot for freshwater mussel diversity. But most of that diversity is in the southeastern United States. Alabama alone has 180 species. Of the 302 known from North America, here in the Pacific Northwest there are only 4 species. And that’s because of, you know, glaciation. Out here we haven’t had as much time to develop cool things, but the South didn’t glaciate, and then the Continental Divide is a barrier to mussels, and in all of the environments in the west, because the rivers out here are so young and fast, the substrate just hasn’t been right. So we only have 4 species here, and most of the others are in the Southeast.

DJ: So I recognize that we’re talking about hundreds of species, but what would be some ideal substrate for typical mussels? Do they like rocks or do they like mud, or sand? What do they like?

TC: Different species have different preferences, but they all need clean water. They need clean flowing water. Earlier you asked about sediment or silt, and that’s a huge problem. Because they breathe all the time, if they’re breathing in silt it can cut their siphons and cause them to just clam up and stop breathing. And then if they keep breathing they have to get rid of it, so they have to package it in mucus and then expel it again. That has an energetic cost. The more silt they have to deal with, the more calories they’re burning, the longer they have to remain closed. Eventually they’ll just die. Some species are tolerant but most species will just die in super silty environments.

And the other problem with silt is that if it makes the water clouded it reduces visibility and then the fish can’t see the lures and the mussels don’t get to reproduce if the fish don’t swim up to their lures.

DJ: So there is a stream, a creek about 20 yards from where I’m sitting right now. And this stream has a natural sand substrate because I live about five miles from the coast. Yes, this area was logged, but it’s not that it used to be cobblestone and now it’s sand. The stream has salmon in it, it has lampreys. I’ve seen all those. It has all sorts of fish. Are there probably some sort of mussels in it or do they not live on sandy beds?

TC: Some mussels specialize in sand, especially in the southeast. I’m not sure whether there would be mussels where you are, but you could certainly take a look. The species out here are the western pearlshell and the western ridged mussel, and then there’s a group called “floaters.” Scientists are still trying to figure out the species in the floaters but one of them; there used to be a California floater but then they decided it was actually the winged floater. So you could have those. You should definitely go take a look around.

DJ: And how would I do that? How would I – like, when I found out there are lampreys here, what I did was – I don’t know why I was doing this but I started just messing around in the sand, like scooping up some shovelfuls of sand from the bottom, and I don’t know what I was looking for but I saw these little itty-bitty black wormlike things. I didn’t take them out. I was just looking at them. And then I called up some stream people and they said “Oh my God! Those are Pacific lamprey babies!”

So what would I look for if I were looking for – and I’m not just asking for me. But if anybody wants to go to a stream and find out if there are mussels in there, what do they look for?

TC: Mussels have to breathe, so they hang out in the substrate but with part of their shell and their siphons showing. Most scientists snorkel. If the water’s clear you could walk along the bank and look in. You have to study them because they kind of look like rocks. They can have algae and other stuff growing on their shell. But they have to breathe eventually, so they hold their shells open a little bit and they have two siphons sticking out. So in clear water you’ll see that at the bottom. And the pearlshell and the western ridged mussel both grow to be about five inches big.

DJ: When I think of mussels, not freshwater mussels but mussels in general, since I live near the ocean I think of sort of huge clam beds, or I think of, hanging onto the rocks, you see 300 of them in ten square feet or something. Are freshwater mussels, are they communal like that? Or do they generally live by themselves?

TC: They are communal like that because the areas of good habitat are where they grow. They’re called mussel beds, places where there are a ton of mussels on the stream bottom. The western pearlshell in particular – they say that, you know, when the rivers were so clean and undammed that they completely covered the stream bottoms in places, that there were more pearlshells than there were rocks.

DJ: Wow.

And so, again, every being is its own beautiful being itself, but in addition they serve the larger community, and … Oh, I just learned this last week. It has nothing to do with mussels but I’m just so excited that I want to share this. I went to lunch with a friend of mine who works for the forest service, he’s a biologist. And something I’ve wondered for the longest time is what function does it serve in a natural community for bears to kill trees? Because bears kill lots of, like, Douglas firs. And he said “I’m glad you asked that,” because where he lives is a mixed Douglas fir/tan oak community. And the Douglas firs reproduce more, reproduce faster, grow faster, so they have every advantage over tan oak. So how is the forest going to let tan oaks survive in this mixed community? And one of the things is the bears really like to eat the inner bark of the Doulas fir. So basically the advantage that the tan oak have over the firs is that the bears will kill some of the firs.

I loved it. So having said all this, what are some of the functions that are played? You said clean water. What other functions are played? How else do mussels serve the river? Are they food for somebody?

TC: I’m so glad you asked that. Yes, they’re food for just about everybody. Muskrats, river otters, sturgeon, birds, raccoons, crayfish, large fish, all of those animals eat freshwater mussels. Because the mussels are eating algae and bacteria and diatoms and little particles in the water, they’re a really important link in the food web because they take all the nutrients and then convert them into a food source for the likes of river otters and great blue herons.

The other cool thing is their bodies support biodiversity because other life lives on and in their shells. So in the Southeast there are these beautiful little rainbow fish called darters, and the darters will hang out in empty mussel shells. And then caddis flies will make their home on mussels shells.

They also play an important role in stabilizing the river bottom. They can actually change the flow dynamics in the substrate of the river when their populations are big, because they stabilize the bottom.

And then they’re kind of like earthworms. They don’t just sit there. They can move around. If the creek starts to dry up they try to move to deeper places, they can climb up small waterfalls with their powerful foot. Because they move around on the river bottom so much, they aerate the substrate and make it healthier. Kind of like earthworms do in healthy soil.

DJ: And how fast do they move?

TC: About as fast as a snail. Pretty slowly. Unless they’re jumping up to grab a fish. Otherwise pretty slowly.

Drought is a big threat to them in the Southeast, so scientists went out to a creek and got all the mussels and put them in a line, the different species, to study which ones could move fastest and furthest and how they would do as the water was declining in the creek. And so it varies by species, how fast they move and how long they can be out of the water.

DJ: How long can they be out of the water?

TC: Some of the mussels that these scientists studied survived out of the water for a couple of days, and some of them died immediately. It varies with species.

DJ: I don’t think we can talk about mussels without mentioning zebra mussels.

TC: Oh, yeah.

DJ: So can you introduce people to those and talk a little bit about them?

TC: Yes. So there are three invasive species of bivalves that threaten freshwater mussels: the Asian clam, the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel are all species that are native to Asia. They’re here now and they kill freshwater mussels because they grow on their shells. So they just colonize the mussels and compete with them for nutrients and they smother them.

These invasive species actually improve the water quality. The Great Lakes got cleaner when all the invasive mussels showed up, but it was terrible for the native mussels.

DJ: What is your work about mussels? And more largely, what can be done about the various threats to mussels?

Oh, first: Before we go there, one more question, which is what is the threat of global warming to mussels?

TC: Oh, gosh. It’s awful. Mussels have a pretty low tolerance for warmed up water, especially the western pearlshell and other species that use salmon as a host. The USGS did a big study a couple of years ago and found that if water temperature gets too warm it kills the juvenile mussels. So climate change is a large and growing threat to them.

In my work, I try to get Endangered Species Act protection for them, for mussels that aren’t protected yet. And then I try to get more recovery money so that actions can be taken to help specific endangered species. I fight projects that are going to pollute the water and hurt areas with endangered freshwater mussels. And then I talk to every person I can about them, because I think they’re so cool. I try to raise public awareness. Even some biologists aren’t aware of them. I wasn’t aware of them when I was obsessed with saving the frogs. I didn’t know that freshwater mussels were more endangered. So I do a lot of advocacy and education.

I love them so much. I’ll tell you a personal story. For my birthday party a couple of years ago, my friend had a surprise party for me, and it was a freshwater mussel pageant. I’m from Kentucky and they had the “endangered but not extinct freshwater mussels of Kentucky” pageant, where they all dressed up as a different freshwater mussel, and I had to guess which freshwater mussel they were. It was the best surprise birthday party ever. The species of the Southeast have really interesting names, like the orangefoot pimplebacked pearly mussel, and the Cumberland elktoe mussel, the spectacle case. So that was really fun. That’s how much I love mussels – I had a mussel-themed surprise birthday party.

DJ: That is the coolest birthday party I’ve ever heard of.

TC: Right.

DJ: When you mentioned the different names, that reminded me of something I read like three weeks ago or a month ago, that I didn’t know about before, was a certain species of mussel was either driven extinct or driven nearly extinct in the 19th century when it was discovered that the shell was really good for buttons.

TC: Yeah. I wanted to talk about that. So after dams, a really big threat to mussels was overharvest. Before plastics, buttons were made of mussel shells. This man named Johann Boepple started the freshwater mussel button industry in the United States, and after that mussels were harvested everywhere, because they were a way for people to make money, just by going down to a river and harvesting tons and tons of mussels. So you see these photos with huge piles of mussel shells that look like they’ve been punched with a perfectly round paper punch. And they’re like, some of these piles are 30 feet high of mussel shells. And so that decimated a lot of populations. But after they were harvested, the harvesters would go to a different area and then they could recover. So as they began to recover, we came along and put in the dams and that ended up being a bigger threat, and now there is pollution and other terrible threats but for awhile buttons were the biggest threat.

And culturally – that’s another reason mussels are cool, is just like with the cultural history of the button industry, Native American tribes made jewelry out of them, and they were, during lean times, a food source. Freshwater mussels don’t taste very good but they are edible. So during times when other food wasn’t available, they were harvested as a food source by Native Americans.

DJ: I know this is off subject, and I also don’t know why anybody would know the answer to this, but why do they taste bad when saltwater mussels can actually taste pretty good?

TC: I think because they live so long. That’s probably one factor. They can live to be up to 200 years old.

DJ: Oh my God.

TC: Yeah. So they’re going to be kind of old, and probably chewy. And also they’re always filtering bacteria and algae. Whatever’s in the water they’re filtering out and accumulating it in their bodies. So I bet because they filter so much in areas that aren’t clean, that’s the reason they don’t taste good.

DJ: So if they can live 200 years, tell me how long these different life periods last. Like how long are they attached to the gill? And then when they drop off, how long does it take for them to become sexually mature? And then how many babies could one realistically make in a year and what’s the mortality of those? Like tadpoles, of course, I’m guessing – I’m making this up but I’m guessing that 99% of tadpoles don’t make it their first year.

TC: That’s a good guess. I actually did my grad work on tadpole reproductive success. 95% of tadpoles don’t make it. But 5% make it. So that was a close guess.

DJ: Thank you.

TC: With mussels it varies by species. They’re only on the fish’s gills for a couple weeks. And then some species grow really fast and some grow more slowly. Some reach reproductive age at two or three and some species take longer.

DJ: Usually when I think of tiny creatures I think of a faster turnover. You know, shrews; living really fast and then dying pretty quickly. But these are obviously not like that.

TC: Yeah. A lot of species are in what’s called “extinction debt.” They’re not extinct yet but they’re going to go extinct, because the old ones are still alive, even though they can’t reproduce anymore. So say humans come along and put up a dam and separate the mussels from their host fish. They can live another 100-150 years but they can’t reproduce. It’s really sad.

DJ: So in those cases it seems that the only solutions would be – I mean, the solution I would prefer, of course, would be removing the dams. But the only other solution would be to translocate some fish above the dam. Without the fish, they’re gone, so somehow or another you have to get the mussels and the fish back together.

TC: Right. And for a lot of mussels the host fish isn’t known. You wouldn’t even know what fish. That’s actually something scientists try to figure out. When mussels are declining and aren’t reproducing in specific rivers, scientists look at the fish that were observed above and below the dam. And sometimes they actually figure it out. “The mooneye fish used to make it above this dam and it doesn’t anymore. Let’s see if that’s the host fish for this mussel.”

And it turns out that it is. So that’s really cool when scientists can figure that out.

For a long time when the host fish wasn’t known, the mussel was pretty much doomed to extinction, but now they’ve figured out how to grow the baby mussels on a medium in the lab. So they can incubate them like they would incubate on the fish gills, but they do it on mediums. This is amazing because it means hope for a lot of species that were doomed to extinction. We can save them now. Scientists go out and dive – they hire divers to go down to areas where the mussels were last seen, where the populations are known to be. And they haul up the mussels and if they’re lucky they’ll find a female that has fertilized eggs and they’ll take her to the lab, or if they find a female and a male they’ll take them to the lab. And then they harvest the glochidia and grow them on substrate until they’re big enough and then take them back out into the field. So this is a new lifeline for a lot of species that were just doomed before.

But it’s really expensive, so that’s one of the campaigns that I work on, trying to get the US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate more recovery money to go get those rare mussels and propagate them and get them back out. It’s really frustrating because as a country we aren’t prioritizing saving the freshwater mussels. Now that the technology exists to do it without knowing the host fish, it’s just a question of getting enough money to the people who are working on their recovery.

DJ: This is again off topic, but this is one of the things that kills me about this whole culture is that the amount of money that that would take is expensive but it’s completely trivial compared to a new aircraft carrier. We could take the money they spend on toilets for the military and do a lot of good work.

TC: Yeah, we could take the money Zinke has spent on fancy doors and airplane rides and save the freshwater mussels. It’s incredibly frustrating.

DJ: I’m always a bit mixed – I mean, I’m not mixed at all on captive breeding programs. It’s like, anything. In my work I say let’s use any means necessary to protect the natural world, and some people think that’s code language for violence. That’s just nonsense, because what it means is anything, including captive breeding if necessary. And on the other hand it’s all – yes, that’s a given that anything to save the species is great. But then it’s also so frustrating because, you know, nature did all this for free. It did it all just naturally. And now, because we’ve messed up so many other things, we have to do these crazy things like growing the babies on an artificial substrate in order to save them. Once again, I want to be really clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m saying it’s also frustrating. The other fish should be there. That’s all.

TC: Yeah. I get criticized a lot for fighting extinction of really obscure species like freshwater mussels. One of the most common arguments that is thrown at me is “Survival of the fittest.” If the mussels were fit, they would just survive. The reality is that you could have the fittest mussel ever, and if you put up a dam and separate it from its host fish then it doesn’t matter how fit it is. It’s going to go extinct unless we intervene and do something to save it.

DJ: I completely agree and I hope you don’t think I was criticizing you with that.

TC: Oh no, not you!

Being from Kentucky I worked on – Mitch McConnell a couple years ago earmarked this money to build a boat dock for recreation. And the place he wanted to put this boat dock was on top of one of the most important mussel beds left. I love orangefoot pimplebacked pearly mussels in particular and the boat dock was going to go right on top of one of their beds. So I started protesting that project and the local paper was so furious about it. They wanted the boat dock, they’d never heard of freshwater mussels, they didn’t care about them. They didn’t care if they went extinct. They ran this editorial saying that some people believed in species. And they believed that the mussels in the river were different from each other. That’s the level of public awareness and education in some places about the plight of freshwater species.

DJ: Wait a second here. Are you saying that you believe in species?

TC: (laughing)

DJ: I don’t know if I can continue this conversation with you.

TC: I just got called a “biological sensationalist” by a politician in Florida who wants to develop the habitat of a crayfish. He said that I was a biological sensationalist and that because there were supposedly eight different kinds of crayfish there, it was impossible to tell the different kinds of crayfish apart and therefore we shouldn’t try to save this one that I’m interested in, the Panama City crayfish.

DJ: Well you know, that’s a real problem. I have noticed that there are multiple species of trees, and I don’t think I can tell the difference between an alder and a pine tree. A tree is a tree.

TC: And the fit ones will survive.

DJ: The fit ones will survive. Yeah.

So on that note … we have about ten minutes left, and let’s start making a curve toward what can be done. One of the questions I want to ask before we get to what can be done on a social level is that I heard years ago about this project in the San Francisco Bay area, where a school was concerned about an endangered shrimp, I believe a fairy shrimp, and the school took it on to rehabilitate a stream, and the endangered fairy shrimp is doing much much better in that stream now because of the school project. So before we talk about larger social questions, can you say what somebody in Kentucky or Alabama, or the Pacific Northwest for that matter, or Nova Scotia, what they can do if they care about a stream and they care about mussels.

TC: Sure. There are mussels in the Willamette. Oregon Field Guides just did this great program on western pearlshell mussels in the Willamette River. That population that they found is a big population but all the mussels are really old and they’re not successfully reproducing. So individuals can get involved by getting involved in things like improved water quality, tree plantings alongside streams, working to reduce pollutants, not using pesticide. Anything that’s going to help out with water quality, anything that’s helpful for salmon populations is also going to help the mussels.

DJ: And then on a larger social scale, what can society do, presuming – I think I asked you this. We talked before about monarch butterflies, right?

TC: Yes.

DJ: One of the questions I asked you is if they made you queen of all things monarch butterfly, what you would do. So if they made you queen of all things mussel, freshwater mussel North America – sorry, you can’t touch saltwater mussels, got nothing to do with you – what policies would you implement? And just as with the monarch butterfly, you can’t get rid of civilization, you can’t get rid of capitalism. Sorry.

So within the current system, what would you do to improve habitat? To improve mussels.

TC: Take out the dams. Can I do that?

DJ: Yeah you can do that.

TC: Okay. Take out the dams, enforce the Clean Water Act, reduce pesticide use, make the Environmental Protection Agency actually consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over all the pesticides and chemicals they approve and how those affect sensitive freshwater species, and increase fines for polluting the rivers. All of the things that would benefit humans in terms of improving water quality are also going to benefit the freshwater species. Freshwater species in North America are going extinct at 1000 times the rate of terrestrial species because of all the insults to our waterways.

And then I would get money, recovery money to the Fish and Wildlife Service. We have the technology to save these mussels now by propagating them in the lab, and so if we cleaned up the rivers and got the recovery money that’s needed to raise millions and millions of baby mussels, we could prevent these species from going extinct. And if we don’t do that, they’re going to go extinct. It’s going to be on our hands and it’s really sad.

DJ: So, apart from doing interviews like this, how would you increase awareness of the problems with mussels? They’re not really charismatic megafauna. Apart from doing what you just did, how can you help people to, and how can other people help to increase awareness of this – I’m sorry, I’m not a biologist. Is it a class? Are mollusks a class?

TC: Mollusks are a phylum.

DJ: So what can people do to increase awareness of what is happening to this phylum?

TC: We have a really creative social media guy at the Center, and he did a video about the sex lives of freshwater mussels that we shared on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. So there are resources out there for public education. I personally think you’ll be very popular at the next party you go to if you start talking about freshwater mussel reproduction and all of the different species and, like, getting that information to school kids.

In December a freshwater snail from Georgia was declared extinct, the beaverpond marstonia, and I did an interview with a reporter who writes for a children’s newspaper, like an online app. He did this story about the extinction of the beaverpond marstonia and the kids were amazing. They drew pictures of it and wrote little stories about it, and I was so touched by the emotional response that kids around the country had to the extinction of a little freshwater snail. So I think anything we can do to teach kids about these cool species, and about all the other cool species, crawdads and snails and things we don’t normally think about. It’s going to be a game-changer for the next generation.

DJ: And can you talk a little bit about your process of being in love with reptiles and amphibians and then falling in love with mollusks. What was it that triggered your affection? How did that process occur in you?

TC: It was just learning about them. They – like you said earlier, if you were creating the world, you wouldn’t know how to make this stuff up, it’s so fantastic. Just learning about their life cycles and then going to Youtube and Googling videos of them and watching them grab the fish and watching them make their lure. That stuff is really fascinating. I think that most people would react to it if they learned more about it.

DJ: I guess the last big question is: Is there anything you’ve wanted to say about mollusks that I haven’t given you the opportunity for?

TC: I want to tell you what happened to Johann Boepple, the man who started the button industry. He stepped on a mussel called the pink heelsplitter and cut his heel and died of an infection from the cut he got from the freshwater mussel. And I just think that that is fascinating, from a karmic standpoint.

DJ: Yeah, that is karma at work.

Well, thank you so much for your incredible work, and thank you for the interview today, and for telling us about mollusks. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Tierra Curry. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on April 15th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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