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Zebra Mussels – Too Toxic for ‘Taste Of”

Photo: That’s a lot of mussel. A beach in Northern Michigan and its zebra mussels. Photo courtesy of the Watershed Council of Northern Michigan.
While I was sitting at the Great Lakes United table at the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts a few weeks ago, a visitor asked if we could harvest and eat zebra mussels. They commented that they are everywhere, and that if we can eat other mussels, so why not harvest and eat the zebra mussels?
Could Buffalo become known not only for its amazing chicken wings, but also its legendary zebra mussel chowder?
I wouldn’t count on it. Not only is the zebra mussel much smaller than mussels you may enjoy at a restaurant, the adult is about the size of a fingernail, only growing to a maximum length of about one and a half inches. But, I would go to great lengths to prevent any humans or animals from eating them. Zebra mussels & their close cousin, the quagga mussel, which has also invaded the Great Lakes are incredible filter feeders, and their ability to clear water means better growing conditions for a bacteria that produces a dangerous toxin.
This toxin is known as botulism. The zebra mussel ingests the bacteria and concentrates the toxin in its tissue. While this does not affect the mussel, the botulism toxin is passed to fish that eat that the mussels. And like so many chemical and biological threats in nature, this toxin can work its way up the food chain. Have you ever seen a waterbird dying on the beach that does not appear to have a broken wing but cannot move? Is the bird still alive but cannot lift its head or flap its wings? It’s likely infected with the botulism toxin from eating contaminated fish weakened by botulism.
While this is a bit of simplified explanation, it shows the interconnectedness of our Great Lakes ecosystems. When someone wonders how little mussels could really have a huge impact, explain the effect that little mussels have on sea gulls, loons, and walleye. As another summer passes, another season of beach visits has been tainted with dead fish and birds. While the water may look clearer, the mussels are doing damage that is irreversible to our Lakes. The zebra and quagga mussels are so widespread it may be beyond removing them. Our only chance now is to control them. And to prevent the next invasive species from taking over our Lakes and changing them forever. Visit to learn more about what our communities and governments can do to prevent another ecological and economic crisis like the zebra mussel.
Look familiar? Birds dying from exposure to the botulism toxin is a sight too common on Great Lakes beaches. This photo, from the Michigan Sea Grant could have been at any of our Lake Erie beaches this summer.

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