Wild Woman: Freshwater Mussels in Arkansas
North America hosts the highest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world and the Southeastern United States contains one-third of the global diversity. But, freshwater mussels are the second most endangered group of animals in North America. Arkansas' rivers once teemed with mussels-especially in the northeast corner.
Mussel Value in Arkansas' Past
Oysters, mussels and clams produce a pearl when an irritant works its way into the shell. As a defense mechanism, the creature creates a protective coating that helps reduce the irritation. Layer after layer of this mother-of-pearl, which also coats the inside of the mollusk's shell, eventually creates the lustrous pearl. In the late 1800s a "pearl rush" began in Arkansas with the discovery of some large pearls from White and Black River mussels. Because of their rarity, pearls were precious and could generate immediate wealth. Tent encampments sprang up along rivers and men, women and children from all walks of life joined in the search. The rush petered out by 1905.
The supply of mussels must have seemed inexhaustible during this time and along with the quest for pearls, the button industry kicked into high gear. Freshwater mussels produce a beautiful, mother-of-pearl lining. Button factories popped up along northeastern Arkansas rivers. Families could earn extra income during slow farming periods by harvesting mussels and supplying the factories. Men, women and children worked together to haul mussels from the river, steam them open and then dry and sort the shells. Sharp-eyed observers can still find mussel shells with button blanks punched out along riverbanks in small, northeastern towns.
In the early 1900s, Mikimoto Kokichi, a Japanese entrepreneur, patented a cultured pearl process. Instead of relying on Mother Nature to create the gem, he inserted a particle into the flesh of the oyster to stimulate the production of a pearl. After many failed experiments, he discovered that a bead made from a Mississippi River Valley mussel shell was the most effective way to create a pearl. Wearing cultured pearls post WWII was a symbol of elegance and drove the demand yet again for freshwater mussel shells. Shell harvesting peaked in northeast Arkansas from 1960 to the 1980s. Commercial anglers in search of mussels for the cultured pearl industry relied primarily on brailing and diving.
Brailing boats hang non-barbed hooks across a bar and pull the bar through the river and over a bed of feeding mussels. Early divers needed nerves of steel, ingenuity and mechanical skills. Air was supplied from a compressor on the boat. Heavy dive helmets-made from old fire extinguishers, hot water tanks and even torpedo casings-pushed the diver to the bottom of the river where he scooted around in the dark on his rear, feeling for mussels and placing them in a bag or net.
Today's Freshwater Mussels:
Today, the few remaining commercial shellers supply the limited use of mussel shells such jewelers seeking the mother-of-pearl for watch faces and jewelry. They are indicator species of the health of our streams and rivers. They clean our water by filtering bacteria, algae, and other small particles but this also makes them susceptible to environmental contaminants. Their greatest threats: construction of dams and reservoirs, dredging for sand and gravel, chemical pollution, and erosion. Introduced non‐native aquatic species, such as the zebra mussel, also pose a growing threat.