A wry view of life for the world-weary

Mussel Waste


Every day I read of warnings that the end of the world is nigh for this and that. Most come from researchers desperate to breathe the oxygen of publicity into their endeavours over the last few years. Most, frankly, you can take with a pinch of salt.

Where I might pay some particular attention to the warnings of the doom-mongers amongst us – whether they are Cassandras or not, only time will tell – is when their warnings affect something close to my heart. And, I must confess, a great big pot of steaming mussels in a garlic and white wine sauce accompanied by, preferably, some crusty bread or, if you must, pommes frites is something which is designed to get my gastric juices flowing.

But, if I am to believe some research from Glasgow University reported recently in the ever popular Royal Society Journal Interface, I had better fill my boots quickly because the humble mussel is under threat.

Inevitably, it is all down to the root of all evil that is climate change. The problem, you see, is that the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the oceans to get more acidic which in turn has a deleterious effect on the concentration of minerals that the poor mussels need to generate their shells.

The scientists, led by a Dr Fitzer, collaborated with colleagues from the University’s Engineering Department to examine the toughness of mussel shells in more acidic water conditions. What they found was the calcite outer shells of the edible bivalves became stiffer and harder beyond a certain level of acidity which meant that they became more brittle and prone to fracture under pressure. Conversely, the inner shell made of aragonite became softer.

This is potentially bad news for shellfish aficionados and for the Scottish mussel industry, worth around £7m per annum to the economy north of Hadrian’s wall. No wonder, they opted to stick with us.

I seem to recall a certain Victorian gentleman expounding the theory that creatures adapt to the changes in their environment to ensure the survival of the fittest and I am sure some enterprising mussels are busily evolving as we speak to adapt to the new maritime conditions.

I would like to think I only ate enterprising mussels. That thought puts me in mind of a wonderful sketch by Ivor Cutler from his Life In A Scotch Sitting Room in which he tells of his father erecting a sign in the water directing literate herring to swim into his nets to improve the brain power and thereby the intelligence of his offspring.

All may well not be lost as the scientists report that mussels could have an in-built defence mechanism which boosts shell development when water temperatures rise by 2 degrees centigrade. As long as our destruction of the planet’s environment raises the temperature of the oceans more quickly than the rate of acidity increases we should be all right.

In the meantime, if I see mussels on the menu I shall have them. You can’t be too careful!


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