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Dial M for Mussels

Set aside that crime novel. Here's a tale about poachers, smugglers, Feds, and a million-dollar settlement. And at the center is the humble mussel, a bivalve seldom associated with international crime.

We start in Japan, where cultured pearls are big business -- a veritable industry, to be precise, one that requires mussel shells to survive. That's because shell pieces form the core of cultured pearls. First, they're rounded into beads, then inserted into live oysters, which slowly coat the beads and add to their luster. A few years later, the new pearls are removed from their hosts. And which mussel shells produce the most valuable cultured pearls? Ones from the rivers in the southern and midwestern United States.

Now jump to Camden, Tennessee, home to the nation's largest buyer and exporter of mussel shells. Tennessee Shell also happens to be owned by Japan's Kagen Trading Company, and in 1998 it pled guilty to buying thousands of pounds of freshwater mussels that had been taken illegally from rivers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio. Since mussels help keep the water in these rivers clean and provide nutrition for fish, otters, and other animals, officials must regulate their harvest in order to prevent depletion. But sometimes regulations alone aren't enough to stop poachers.

The government spent four years investigating Tennessee Shell, and the fruits of that labor -- a $1 million settlement -- will support the recovery and protection of freshwater mussels in threatened areas. The first $260,000 installment was distributed recently in the form of grants to several state and federal agencies and two universities. The projects supported will, among other things, breed mussels for research and restocking programs, create an online database of North America's freshwater mussels, and determine whether chemical analysis of mussel shells can be used to identify their harvest location -- that is, determine whether the mussels themselves can help nab poachers and smugglers.