by Pat Middleton, All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from Discover! America's Great River Road, Volume 2, The Middle Mississippi

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Mississippi River Mussels ( clams ) produce pearls.


Table of Contents

Marian Havlik's 10 grandchildren seldom find grandma making chocolate chip cookies or teaching them how to knit. Instead, they wend their way past stacks of specimen boxes, and scientific reports for a lesson on the new computer.

Their grandma, known from St. Paul, Minnesota, toMarian  Havlik Mobile, Alabama, simply as "that clam lady" is a kindly woman who regularly directs divers in the murky river waters of the Midwest, conducts mitigation projects and willingly goes nose-to-nose with such heavy-weight bureaucracies as the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and state departments of conservation, all in defense of the living equivalent of a pet rock, the endangered Higgins Eye Mussel.

Marian Havlik, an internationally known expert on fresh-water mussels, came late to the world of malacalogy (the study of mollusks) when, in 1969, one of her five children decided to enter a science fair in 5th grade. Her project was a study of ocean shells. The second year led mother and daughter to explore the pearl button industry which nearly depleted the freshwater mussels whose shells decorated the mud flats of the nearby Mississippi River.

"When we began research for the science fair that year," Havlik recalls, "we found an absolute dearth of information for freshwater mussels of our own Mississippi River. I learned that the large thick shells were used until the late 1930's to make pearl buttons. But when we tried to learn about the pearl button industry or even the pearls that are produced by freshwater mussels, we found nothing. Nobody at area universities could help, nobody at the local National Fishery Research Laboratory. I was amazed!"

Havlik and her daughter, Rosemarie, chanced upon a clam buyer in Prairie du Chien, who eagerly shared the knowledge he had accumulated from many years of commercial clamming ("musseling," in the southern states.") One of his contributions to the project included a display of shells that he had collected and identified to the best of his ability. One of those shells was later identified by Havlik as the Higgins Eye, an historically rare species.

"The fourth year," Marian continues, "we did another mussel project, this time with 100 live specimens. That was the first time we set up aquariums in the house to study the mussels. I've had them around ever since."

The clam buyer also gave Marian a 7 inch-wide, 2.2 pound Three-Ridged Mussel shell. The buyer's specimen was 60 years old, according to its growth rings. The most common size in the river today is 3.5" and just a few ounces. What was happening to the mussels? Why weren't they living as long as they used to? Very few clams found today lived to be more than 20 or 25 years! She wrote various state agencies, the DNR, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the state universities, to suggest that studies be done and regulations put in place to protect the defenseless bi-valves. She found that no one really knew anything about the little critters. What was worse, nobody really cared to know about them.

"A rare mussel is simply not as sexy as a grizzly bear or bald eagle," Marian explains. "Yet the clammer's livelihood depended on having a successfully reproducing population of mussels. I really felt that some of these government agencies were not doing as well by the clammers as they were by the deer hunters, fishermen, and duck hunters. That bothered me. "

"So I started my own research program, reading old books I found at the National Fishery Research Center; reading observations and records made during the hey-day of the pearl button industries."

A research trip to the University in Winona, MN, brought her another "aha."

"Marian," the professor said, and she is still grateful for his honest admission, "Marian, I cannot answer your questions. You already know more than I do. "

"Well, that set me out on a whole new quest. I visited museums of natural history throughout the country in order to study their collections of freshwater mussels. I sat in on planning meetings for the Great River Environmental Action Team and other river commission meetings. I was the only woman at most of those meetings."

"I knew I needed to get some formal training in order to gain any credibility with the men in these agencies and commissions. So in 1976 I applied to the Bush Leadership Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for a grant to attend Ohio State University. There I had 5 weeks of independent study with America's number one expert on freshwater mussel species."

About this same time, the Higgins Eye was considered for both federal and state endangered species lists. It happened that the only recent proof of its continuing existence were the specimens collected by the clam buyer in Prairie du Chien. Dr. Ruth Hine of the Wisconsin DNR contacted Marian for her opinion as to the existence of the mussel.

"I was now considered to be an expert, but I didn't have it placed on the endangered species list," Marian reminds me, "that process had already started. Shortly after, the Army Corps of Engineers proceeded with dredging the East Channel at Prairie du Chien even though I warned them that dredging would disrupt the best-known habitat of the Higgins Eye, an endangered species. That's when I first became known throughout the Corps of Engineers as "that clam lady."

Higgins' eye pearlymussel photo

"They dredged despite my warnings, and afterward I found hundreds of Higgins Eye shells in the dredge spoil. I wrote letters single-handedly to every federal agency I could think of, every environmental club, senator, even President Carter, accusing the Army Corps of disregarding the Endangered Species Act. All hell broke loose and, after Congressional inquiries into the matter, the Army Corps realized that never again could it dredge a channel without first doing a survey of mussel species in the path of the dredge boat."

"As it happened, there was no one in the Corps who could identify a mussel species. I became the person in the right place, at the right time, with the right information."

"Sometimes I look back at the events of the past twenty-five years and I wonder who planned it all; the coincidences, the snowballing interest in freshwater mussels. Anyone who takes up an environmental cause needs to realize that they must plan to devote 20 or 25 years of their life to the effort. The bureaucracy moves so slowly, but all it takes is one person who is willing to stick with the battle. In the case of regulating mussels, I was that one person."

Today, Marian Havlik is active in many environmental law issues, including mining and other environmental legislation. Her company, Malacological Consultants, founded in 1977, continues to do field surveys on heartland rivers: the Rock River in Illinois, the Ohio River from Paducah to Cairo, the Meramec in Missouri and the Elkhorn river in Nebraska. She is a pioneer in the new strategy of mitigation, the process of moving mussel beds out of the way of construction or dredging projects and reestablishing them among communities in safer nearby locales.


"Many of our river systems are in such bad shape," she cautions. "In 1994 we examined 130 sites on the Root River in Minnesota and found shells from 15 mussel species. Only three species had any live representatives. We found only five live mussels in two weeks of study. Think of it! In 1977 we looked at the Minnesota River near Savage, MN. We found shells from 32 species and NOT ONE live specimen."

"What is killing the mussels? I agree with studies showing that it is the cumulative result of barge traffic, dredging, industrial pollution, erosion and agricultural impact. Agriculture along streams and tributaries of the Mississippi and other large rivers is having a devastating effect. Cows and horses degrade stream and river banks. Pesticides, fertilizers, and sediments eventually flow into the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers."

Marian notes finally that miners once took canaries into the mines because they were very sensitive to changes in oxygen. They provided an early warning that air quality was deteriorating. The freshwater mussel serves the same purpose. The decline in species diversity and numbers warns us of problems in our river systems. Of 300 known mussel species in the U.S., 50 are endangered. Many more are proposed for endangered status.

Zebra Mussels Threaten Native Mussels

(Photo, above) A colony of zebra mussels has attached itself to the hard shell of a native mussel.

One great irony in Marian Havlik's life is that having fought to protect mussels for 25 years, she now believes their very existence is threatened by the fingernail-sized zebra mussel. This tiny striped mussel is native to the Caspian Sea region of Asia and was introduced into American rivers via the Great Lakes in 1991.

The zebra mussel builds huge colonies by cementing itself onto any hard surfaceboat hulls, intake pipes, live wells and most devastating, the shells of our native mussels. Colonies of 1500 zebra mussels have been found cemented to a single native mussel. The shell becomes so encrusted the host can neither move nor filter feed and dies.

"We will be lucky if any native mussels can survive the influx for even five years," Havlik asserts. "The flood of 1993 flushed the Zebra Mussel throughout the length of the Mississippi River and into its tributaries. They have spread far faster than we ever dreamed possible."

Preventing the Spread of Zebra Mussels to Other Rivers and Lakes

Boaters and divers are believed to be a primary transporter of zebra mussels to river systems and land-locked lakes and quarries. Clean boats mean clean waters...

What can boaters do to discourage the spread of zebra mussels and other exotic species?

Remove plants and animals from your boat, trailer, accessory equipment before leaving access area. Put plants or shells in trash can.

Drain and clean livewells, bilge water, and transom wells before leaving access area. Empty water on land, not into the water. Never dip bait buckets into one lake or river if it has water from another in it.

Steam-clean or wash boats and trailers with hot water (135-145 )when you have them home. Wash the bumpers, bait buckets and any other hard surface that has been in the water. Flush hot water through your motor's cooling system. Alternatively, use a salt solution of 1/2 cup salt per gallon of water followed by a fresh water flush. If possible, let everything dry for three days before transporting your boat to another body of water. (Both hot water and drying will kill the zebra mussel larvae.)

(Freshwater mussels are commonly referred to as "clams" on the Upper Mississippi. "Clamming" is the commercial collecting of clams. Commonly referred to as "musseling" in the southern states.)

Most fresh water mussels in existence are located in American rivers, very few species are found in European waters

Marian Havlik recently mailed in this update for boaters:


Be sure to alert all of your readers of the possibility of spreading Zebra Mussels when traveling around in rivers. I strongly suggest that boaters never try to go from Lake Superior thru the Brule River, and then portage to the St. Croix River (boundary between part of Minnesota and Wisconsin). The National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the MN and WI DNR's have been trying desperately to keep the Zebra Mussel out of the St. Croix River because of unique freshwater mussel populations. This is not a problem if trying to access the Mississippi River from Lake Michigan through the Illinois River.

Likewise, when these boaters are returning home, or to rivers or lakes not infested with Zebra Mussels, they should througly clean their boats with a bleach solution, or let them dry out for at least a week or more if they have been in the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers known to be infested with the exotic Zebra Mussel. Zebra Mussels can also cause problems with your boat motors (clog up the water intake system) so keep your outboards tipped up when not running your motor if you're going to be in infested waters for a period of time.

Clean vegetation off of your boat and trailer before traveling on highways (illegal in Minnesota to transport exotic species in that state; Wisconsin is in the process of implementing similar legislation).


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