New England is running out of mussels. The Gulf of Maine's once strong population of wild blue mussels is disappearing, scientists say. A study led by marine ecologists at the University of California at Irvine found the numbers along the gulf coastline have declined by more than 60% over the last 40 years, reports the AP. Once covering as much as two-thirds of the gulf's intertidal zone, mussels now cover less than 15%. "It would be like losing a forest," said biologist Cascade Sorte, who with her colleagues recently published their findings in Global Change Biology. Blue mussels are used in seafood dishes and worth millions to the economy of some New England states, but are also important in moving bacteria and toxins out of the water. "It's so disheartening to see it (the loss) in our marine habitats. We're losing the habitats they create," she said.
Disheartening, and also sometimes a smelly nuisance. Thousands of dead mussels washed up last week on the shores of Long Island, New York, and a Stony Brook University professor said the die-off could be attributable to warmer waters. The Sorte study focused on 20 sites along the gulf, using historical data to compare today's mussel populations to the past. She said the decline of mussels isn't due to just one factor—warming ocean water, increases in human harvesting, and the introduction of new predatory invasive species all play a role. The marine environment will suffer, she said, if they continue to decline, and it's possible they could become extinct in some areas. Scott Morello, a researcher who has studied mussels with The Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research & Education in Maine, said Sorte's work reflects observations that people who work on the water have made in recent years. "It's not just scientists," he said. "I can tell you that most residents I've talked to, most fishermen I've talked to will point out the same dramatic decrease in mussels." (New England's cod are fleeing to cooler waters.)