October 28, 2021

Extreme heat cooked mussels, clams and other shellfish alive on beaches in Western Canada

2 min read

The devastating heat wave that ravaged British Columbia last week is being blamed for a massive die-off of mussels, clams and other marine animals that live on the beaches of Western Canada.

Christopher Harley, a professor in the zoology department at The University of British Columbia, found countless dead mussels popped open and rotting in their shells on Sunday at Kitsalano Beach, which is a few blocks away from his Vancouver home. Harley studies the effects of climate change on the ecology of rocky shores where clams, mussels and sea stars live, so he wanted to see how the intertidal invertebrates were faring in the record heat wave that hit the area on June 26-28.

“I could smell that beach before I got to it, because there was already a lot of dead animals from the previous day, which was not the hottest of three,” he said. “I started having a look around just on my local beach and thought, ‘Oh, this, this can’t be good.'” The next day, Harley and one of his students went to Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver, which he has been visiting for more than 12 years. “It was a catastrophe over there,” he said. “There’s a really extensive mussel bed that coats the shore and most of those animals had died.”

Mussels attach themselves to rocks and other surfaces and are used to being exposed to the air and sunlight during low tide, Harley said, but they generally can’t survive temperatures over 100 degrees for very long. Temperatures in downtown Vancouver were 98.6 degrees on June 26, 99.5 on the 27 and 101.5 on the 28. It was even hotter on the beach. Harley and his student used a FLIR thermal imaging camera that found surface temperatures topping 125 degrees. At this time of the year, low tide hits at the hottest part of the day in the area, so the animals can’t make it until the tide comes back in, he said.

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