Protecting the River Spey
Spey is honored to take its name from the graceful River Spey that trickles and turns through the Scottish Highlands. In homage to this inheritance, Spey supports campaigns that educate and empower local Scots to care for the river – home to a critically endangered species of freshwater pearl mussel.
The Past, Present & Future of the Mussel
The Margaritifera margaritifera mussel, a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, is a valuable indicator of water quality and river health. Each filters daily the equivalent amount of water as we use when showering. The mussel is long-lived, with some reports of specimens reaching 130 years. Burrowing between boulders and pebbles at the bottom of clean, cool, well-oxygenated, fast-flowing rivers, the mussel now finds itself perilously threatened.
Several factors contribute to the decline of the species, though pollution and fishing are the most immediately detrimental. Changes in water quality and reduced numbers of salmon, which the mussel relies on in its juvenile state, also impair population growth. Engineering works, like the building of communities in Cairngorms National Park, disturb the riverbed and send imperiling pollutants and sewage downstream. The mussels are also systematically killed for the pearls they may occasionally contain. Wildlife crime is a serious issue and the law is clear: it is an offense to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, take or disturb freshwater pearl mussels or their habitat. Spey neither condones nor uses any pearls robbed from the River Spey.
Many rivers across mainland Europe and the UK, where the mussel had been widespread, no longer support the species. Scotland is one of the last havens, with the River Spey supporting one of the largest populations. Now a special area of conservation, the River Spey is a significant stronghold and boasts several million mussels. But conservationists suggest that over the last 15 years the population has halved, giving extra significance to the River Spey.
All is not lost for the freshwater pearl mussel. A number of measures are in place to ensure the River Spey functions as a healthy river system, but more can be done. Improving awareness and understanding of the species is the best first step, so that anglers and tourists respect the mussel’s environment. Enacting more rigorous standards for waste disposal, water use, and environmental monitoring will go a long way to supporting conservation objectives.
Consideration is also underway to reintroduce the mussel into rivers where populations have fallen. It all relies on riverside communities better understanding the mussel’s benefit to the ecosystem, and then working together for the safekeeping of the River Spey. It is our hope to help Scotland safeguard these important populations of the mussels for generations to come.
Pearls in Peril
Pearls in Peril is an ambitious $5 million LIFE+ NATURE project co-funded by over a dozen institutions across Scotland, England, Wales and the European Union, acting to safeguard important populations of freshwater Margaritifera margaritifera pearl mussels. Over the four-year project term, conservation measures in 21 key river systems across Britain, including our namesake River Spey, aim to:
- Restore and improve the threatened habitat of the freshwater pearl mussel and salmonids (salmon and trout);
- Secure the survival of existing populations for future generations and reintroduce mussel larvae; and
- Raise awareness of the issues confronting conservation work and the survival of the species.
In the current environment vs. man dynamic, freshwater pearl mussel populations are dwindling under the stressors of pollution and exploitation. In the last 100 years, mussel populations in more than a third of Scottish rivers have entirely disappeared. Pearls in Peril introduces practical measures like ditch blocking, tree planting, and cordoning off stretches of riverbank to prevent erosion, reduce escalating water temperatures, and provide habitats. Artificial encystment (facilitating the attachment of freshwater pearl mussel larvae to the gills of fish, where they grow in an oxygen-rich environment until strong enough to survive on their own) is also having measured success.
The small, richly-nacred pearls that may form within a small proportion of mussels is another factor that has contributed to the decline; man cannot help but to scour entire mussel beds for the chance of finding one pearl. Because of this, the harvesting or deliberate destruction of freshwater pearl mussels was criminalized in 1998 and the species given full protection.
It will be many years before the effects of conservation work are fully measured and appreciated, but immediate improvements in water quality and fish populations are encouraging. Given the freshwater pearl mussel’s slow reproduction rate (maturing between 10-15 years) and the incredible life span of 100+ years, we must work toward a more lustrous future for the River Spey with patience and diligence.
We handed the reins to one stone from Speyside as it heads to Washington, DC to raise awareness for the endangered freshwater pearl mussel. Before traveling some 3,400 miles from river to capital, the stone was expertly carved by Speyside sculptor Stuart Murdoch. Now from its new home, the stone is a champion of the River Spey and a constant reminder that work is left to be done. Follow along on Instagram with #SpeyRocks and support your local river!
Springtime in Speyside. It’s fine Scottish weather we’re having; I feel an adventure coming on.
In my old age, I’ve seen a thing or two – not all of it good. In the last 15 years the number of freshwater pearl mussels in the River Spey has halved. It’s time to get serious.
I’m ready for my close up. This morning I called the talented Stuart Murdoch to give me a makeover. I have to look my best for the cameras, but first I needed a bath.
Dropped alone in a studio of sorts. It has the trappings of what I can only imagine is a lumberjack dentist…
It started with an S – ouch! Hours of chiseling and letter carving later and I’m starting to have the makings of my very own tattoo.
Give me an S! Give me a P! Give me an E! Give me a Y! What’s that spell? Progress.
Spey pear? Looks like we’ve got some work to do…
It’s finished! Just in time to tell the story of the River Spey this Earth Day. Well, how do I look? Do these letters make me look fat?
After one last look at Scotland this stone needs to get rolling to grow awareness of the endangered freshwater pearl mussels in the River Spey. Fedex take the wheel! Get me safe to America!
Stay tuned – the story continues…