Between 2016 and 2019, an estimated several hundred thousand to a million mussels normally found in the freshwaters of the Clinch River that winds through the Appalachia mountains have disappeared.
This die-off follows a global trend that is concerning scientists.
Mussels are part of a delicate ecosystem that benefits from a healthy mussel population. Each mussel filters up to 10-gallons of river water each day, removing algae, silt, and heavy metals. Fish, amphibians, plants, bugs, and people all rely on mussels to keep rivers clean.
Currently, the Clinch River is just one of five U.S. rivers where these die-offs are occurring. A river in Spain has also reported a decline in the mussel population.
Scientists suggest that the source of the problem is habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Infectious disease may be another source of the decline.
This may not be just a mussel problem, either. Declining fish populations may be making an existing problem worse.
To reproduce, mussels lure nearby fish who attempt to eat what looks like a worm. One a fish attaches itself, the mussel injects the fish with larvae. When these larvae grow large enough to survive on their own, they return to the water.
Some mussel species rely on just one type of fish species to survive. When dams and habitat loss affect the one species of fish, the mussels can’t reproduce and will die off.
The Clinch River has seen ten species already go extinct. Another 20 species are now on the endangered species list. Globally, 300 species are at risk of disappearing.
The search for a common link in die-offs is now a global effort. Many scientists agree that human activity is a primary driver, infectious disease is also likely another problem.
So far, researchers have found the major challenge in identifying any one cause is that each mussel species may have unique traits that are exclusive to that species; these traits may be wholly different than a species further down the river. So solving the problem in one species won’t necessarily provide insight into what affects another species.
Some researchers are also learning how to breed mussels in captivity. While some species of mussels are rare and finding both a male and female can be difficult, the challenge may be worthwhile. Reintroducing just 500 mussels into a river ecosystem can be beneficial.
Figuring out how to save mussel species isn’t just about the conservation of a particular animal. Mussels share a relationship with many aquatic animals. What affects one species affects all species. The biological diversity of our waters may depend on solving this issue quickly and before they disappear forever.
After several seasons of dry weather and mandatory water restrictions, California enjoyed a brief period of record rainfall during the 2019 spring season.
Unfortunately, after falling back into a dry period, all of that new summer plant growth became kindling which sparked some of the worst fires ever in California history.
But it wasn’t just weather contributing to fires. Electrical utilities maintained by PG&E sparked at least 19 fires in 2017 and 2018, and have also been blamed for the Camp Fire that left 86 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.
The need to keep fires contained and away from populated areas has led to a 65% rise in wages for firefighters over the last decade. The largest contributor to this sudden rise is overtime pay.
In 2011, 41 firefighters earned more than $100,000 in overtime pay. That number rose to 1,085 in 2018. According to the New York Times reporting, around 200 firefighters earned more than $300,000 in 2018, representing a third of all payroll for L.A. firefighters.
For some pundits, and perhaps even the taxpayers who fund county firefighting services, these numbers are surprising. But experts argue that after factoring in training and benefits of new firefighters, it is cheaper to pay overtime.
But there are still concerns over overtime policies. Currently, overtime is dictated by federal regulations that govern overtime, pre-negotiated contracts between management and unions, and the use of “constant staffing” models that see some firefighters in stations for a 24-hour period.
The Los Angeles country Fire Department has launched a campaign to argue for increases in revenue to increase staffing levels. This money is not required to keep services running to fight fires, as budget shortfalls resulting from wildfires are reimbursed under California’s mutual aid system that redistributes money across jurisdictions and the federal government.
Looking beyond the money, officials argue that firefighters are subjected to long hours and are at constant risk of mental and physical health problems. Meaning that some of these rising expenses are also the result of paying for lost time when firefighters are injured on the job. One fire official also said that there has been a 50% increase in medical calls and that the funding isn’t there to hire more staff.
There are also caps on overtime, but during emergencies, like wildfires, those caps get lifted.
Officials are actively working to understand the overtime system better to ensure that taxpayer money is used efficiently. But with the rising number of fires threatening California homes, a solution that all parties involved can agree on may not come easily.