The signs are unmistakable: heaps of empty mussel shells ripped open and strewn across the Spey riverbank; clusters of footprints treading into the water; a scene of abandon and carelessness. These signs of poaching are altogether familiar along the River Spey – the allure of the perfect round pearl emerging from a mussel is simply too tempting for the criminals that would flout Queen and country. For the law is clear: it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, take or disturb freshwater pearl mussels or their habitat, particularly with the purpose to obtain or trade pearls from the River Spey. Yet each year, scores of these mussels are found barren and abandoned on rivers throughout Scotland. Why? Let’s turn to the Romans.
Pearls from the River Spey and throughout Scotland have been prized for their tantalizing luster and intriguing soft colors (think lilac, mint, rose, peach and linen) since at least the invasion of the Romans. Throughout the royal treasuries and collections of Europe, including a number of royal crowns (the Scottish and English crown jewels among them), pearls from the River Spey may be positioned proudly next to pearls from the West Indies, Persian Gulf, and East Asia. Pearls from the River Spey may be off round and baroque, or perfectly spherical – the variations made them fascinating to collectors and nobility. Indeed, truly priceless pearls, over 10mm and breathtakingly lustrous, have been discovered within the River Spey.
But like old wine and good friends, these pearls from the River Spey are exceedingly rare. One in 100 mussels may reveal even the semblance of a pearl. The process to form pearls from the River Spey requires pristine, fast-flowing waters rich in nutrient and biodiversity, and must follow a very specific sequence of events. What’s more, the unique lifecycle of the freshwater mussel Margaritifera margaritifera requires a symbiotic relationship with fish like salmon and trout, on whose oxygen-rich gills the larvae of mussels attach. These mussels form a vital ecological link in the health of Scotland’s river network – a keystone species maintaining water quality and each filtering daily the equivalent amount of water that a single person uses to shower.
The freshwater pearl mussel’s position within this delicate ecosystem is precarious at best. Over the last 100 years, mussels have disappeared from more than a third of Scottish rivers, with an additional third of rivers only sustaining old mussels with no signs of reproduction. All this in Scotland, which is recognized as the global stronghold for the species and which boasts more than half of the world’s known populations of this mussel. Since 1970, mussels have left Scottish rivers at a rate of about two rivers per year. The threat level is now comparable to the tiger in Asia. Pollution, engineering works upriver and along the river banks, and elusive poachers are responsible for this decline.
Pearls from the River Spey are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the harvest or sale of these pearls has been criminalized since 1998. Those taking mussels or disturbing their habitat may now face a stint in prison. But the road ahead for the mussels is anything but certain. It is exceptionally difficult to police the far-stretching banks of the River Spey. A local commitment and a global awareness are required to combat the downfall – due in large part to the illegal harvesting of pearls from the River Spey. Braving bogs and barbs to hunt a pearl that the mussels statistically do not contain is senseless. We at Spey love pearls, and we love our namesake river, but we in no way condone the taking of pearls from the River Spey. Be responsible: the River Spey is not for pearling.