ALIVE ALIVE O! Calling the Blue Mussel
The mussel beds in the Exe are now badly depleted and many are wondering how we can restore the natural habitats of the Estuary. Adult mussels cannot move, but their larvae disperse through the water and can travel. Many species of marine animals from fishes, to crabs, to corals and even mussels in New Zealand, use sound as a way to find a good place to settle. ‘Reef Song’ is currently being used as a coral reef restoration technique on the Great Barrier Reef and Sophie Nedelec, partner in this project is also working on this. We wondered whether songs could bring people to the water and bring the mussels back to their original habitat. Here is an account of Alive Alive O! Our first event bringing community together to explore in action this fascinating subject and building on work earlier in the year recording underwater sound with swimmers and our pilot choir Singing the Sea. (see previous blog post)
On July 23rd 2022 estuary residents, historians, singers, researchers, swimmers, scientists, artists, conservationists and the curious gathered in the garden of The Lookout, Lympstone to celebrate the Exe blue mussel. The event, timed to correspond with the high tide, was conceived by Exmouth resident and Tidelines’ Anne-Marie Culhane together with Exeter University marine bio-acoustician Sophie Nedelec and Exeter musician Emma Welton, who was born in Lympstone. We sat in a huge circular tank – now a volleyball court – built to hold mussels for washing in Lympstone’s days as a significant place of mussel farming. Our host, Jackie Michelmore, shared her knowledge of the history of the mussel processing plant, now her home, and a large collection of old photographs showing the tank in use and the mussel farmers. We shared stories of past and present lives lived alongside our mussel neighbours. We asked each other questions, shared our knowledge.
Mussels used to be abundant here, and were a staple of Estuary-dwellers’ diet. Post world war II they were shipped in huge numbers to London as a valuable nutrient for thousands of people on rations. Today, the estuary mussels are struggling. Stocks are lower than in the past, and no longer do residents go ‘to the bank’ to pick mussels to eat or sell. Public mussel harvesting is currently suspended on the Estuary to allow stocks to replenish. We talked about possible reasons for the decline – pollution and silt washing down from upstream farm runoff to poison or smother, South West Water discharging sewage, rising water temperatures, over harvesting.
Sophie Nedelec told us how in spring mussel larvae drift through water before they find a place to settle, and how sound has been shown to induce them to settle. We introduced the idea of making music/a song/a din to attract mussel larvae to settle in the estuary. The group quickly learned a new song in parts, ‘Calling the Blue Mussel’, by Emma Welton, before heading to the water to try it out. Emma devised the song inspired by research papers shared by Sophie about mussels and the frequencies that mussels hear – bringing her own unique compositional skills into the mix.
We stood along the stony Lympstone shoreline and sang out across the water. It was a grey day with a strong breeze which carried our voices away. At a certain point, half the group entered the water, still singing. Then we were two groups, singing to each other and to the mussels, trying to be heard. With our hands we clapped, shook bags of mussel shells and – most fun of all – played the surface of the water as a drum.
As an experiment we recorded our sound with an underwater microphone – perhaps to play to mussels in different places. We found this worked well if we stood in a circle around the microphone.
What were we trying to say to the mussels, and what change are we seeking in the Estuary? Were we honouring them as a keystone species, on which rich biodiversity depends, pleading with them to return, apologising for polluting their habitat, seeking to make amends, thanking them for filtering the water… or using our sweet singing voices to lure them back in order to eat them as a protein rich local food – perhaps to save ourselves?
When you do this kind of thing with other people, it changes you. Calling the Blue Mussel included moments where we stopped singing and splashing and listened. Those gaps made space for us to consider that perhaps the mussels are really calling us rather than the other way around. If we listen, can we hear what are they singing?
We had a lot of fun with this new kind of swimming – singing and we are planning to return to the water next spring/summer to call the blue mussel to the Exe. If you’re curious abour mussels, recording underwater sound in the Exe or singing and swimming in the Exe, please get in touch.
Additional notes on mussels in the Exe by Sophie Nedelec:
The blue mussel is known as a ‘keystone species’ because when they settle together in large beds they create a habitat that supports a multitude of other invertebrate life forms. These mussels are filter feeders which means they clean the water, helping to create the right conditions for fishes. Mussels are also an important food source for migratory birds such as oystercatchers, who make the estuary their temporary home while they stock up on energy for their long journeys. The importance of mussels as a food source for wildlife in this area is internationally recognised; Exe Estuary is a Special Protection Area (designation under the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds), which means we have a duty to safeguard the habitats of migratory birds. It is also a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance). Research into ‘Blue Health’ at the University of Exeter is revealing that time close to blue spaces is valuable for health and wellbeing and this is felt by many local residents. The Exmouth Local Nature Reserve is treasured by many of the people who live in the area as a source of connection with the natural world.
Can you hear us?
Are we singing the right frequencies?
Will you settle to our song?
Will you stay?
Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue
larvae drifting by stay!
from near and far stay!
help clean our water stay!
make the Exe your home stay!
larvae drifting by stay!
from near and far stay!
help clean our water stay!
bring us back home stay!
We need you, thank you.
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