Think Out Loud

Mussel poaching on Oregon’s North Coast draws concerns

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 21, 2023 5:44 p.m. Updated: Feb. 21, 2023 9:23 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Feb. 21

File photo from Feb. 2021. Wildlife at Haystack Rock are protected, however this isn't stopping some locals from poaching mussels. Officials at the marine garden share concerns as Mussels play a vital role in the ecosystem.

File photo from Feb. 2021. Wildlife at Haystack Rock are protected, however this isn't stopping some locals from poaching mussels. Officials at the marine garden share concerns as Mussels play a vital role in the ecosystem.

Stephani Gordon / OPB


Despite protections for wildlife in marine gardens along Oregon’s coast, officials at Haystack Rock are seeing bald spots. As The Astorian reports, locals are suspected to have been poaching mussels in the area. These incidents are not new, but officials are growing more concerned as these invertebrates play a vital role in sea star recovery efforts. Kelli Ennis is the director of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. She joins us to share where poaching is occurring and how it may indirectly affect Oregon sea stars.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave MillerFrom the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Despite protections for wildlife and marine gardens along Oregon’s coast, officials at Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach are seeing bald spots. As The Astorian reported recently, people are poaching muscles in the area. This kind of poaching isn’t new, but officials are growing more concerned as these shellfish play a vital role in the recovery of sea stars. Kelli Ennis is the director of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. She joins us to talk about muscles and the broader ecosystem of this marine garden. Kelli Ennis, welcome.

Kelli Ennis:  Hi, thank you for having me.

MillerThanks for joining us. I imagine a lot of Oregonians are familiar with Haystack Rock as this sort of majestic scenic feature at Cannon Beach, a very photogenic chunk of basalt. What happens below the surface of the water?

Ennis:  Yeah, it’s actually really incredible. So Haystack Rock is definitely one of the most iconic sites in the state of Oregon. It’s famous across the country, even outside of the Pacific Northwest and anytime if you’re going to search Oregon coast, I guarantee some of the top pictures that you’re going to see on Google are going to be Haystack Rock. But it’s always taken from a distance where you can see the rock itself. What is really great about it is when you come up close at low tide, you start to see, what I call, the window of the ocean opening up. And that’s this really rich intertidal area that just begins to get exposed to us. And it’s the first time that humans really get a chance to safely explore the ocean without having to worry about breathing underwater or walking in all these uneven, odd terrains and dealing with the waves because those are receding and allowing us to take a look at this wildlife that is like nothing we see on land.

MillerGive us a sense for what people see when that window of the ocean, as you described it, is opened up?

Ennis:  Absolutely. So some of the first things that you’re gonna start seeing are the rocks suddenly aren’t rocks, they’re actually covered densely in life. And as you’re getting closer and closer, you’re noticing that you don’t even really see any rock in there. You’re just seeing a lot of squishy animals. Most of that is going to be anemones which, to a lot of people, look like plants. But they’re actually animals that are attached to the rock. And then you start to look a little closer and you’re going to see a bunch of barnacles on top of them. On different levels up and down the rock of different species.

You’ll see some sea stars tucked under, you’ll see big, dense mussel beds, which we’ll talk about. And when you start to look at little smaller bits on top of all of that, on top of the muscles, on top of the barnacles, you’re going to see tiny little chitons. You’re going to see limpets and different insects and snails crawling all over the place. It is actually an incredibly, just dense, dense ecosystem. And the closer you look, the more you’re going to see.

MillerWhat about in the air or perched on the rock? Can you give us a sense for bird life in the area?

Ennis:  Absolutely. Sometimes you can get so lost looking down, you forget that there’s an entire other ecosystem right above. Right above, at the Rock, is actually a nesting ground for a lot of sea and shore birds. So you’re going to, easily in the summertime, see, in one day, probably about 17 different species of birds that are nesting. We have anywhere from the pigeon guillemots, three different species of cormorants, harlequin ducks will be out foraging in the waters, some surface scooters, there will be some black oystercatchers flying around near shore and of course, our most famous gulls. And what a lot of people really come to see is going to be the tufted puffin, which is an incredibly rare and elusive bird species that tends to be one of the biggest draws at Haystack Rock, once people realize that we have puffins.

MillerAnd tufted ones at that. What does it exactly mean that Haystack Rock, or the water beneath it, is known as a Marine Garden?

Ennis:  So that’s a term that a lot of people aren’t familiar with, even if you do live in this area and a Marine Garden is a special designation given by the State of Oregon that essentially considers this to be an important rocky habitat and an important resource. But we recognize that it’s in an area that is easily accessible. So it’s a short walk from the beach. It takes no time for anyone to just walk right up and see it. It doesn’t take any special tools or any special equipment to get out there. It’s just a casual walk on the beach and it’s right off in Cannon Beach, which is really close to Portland. So that makes it even more accessible to a larger number of people.

And because of this high accessibility, that means it’s also vulnerable to being overlooked to death, and having too many people traffic on it. So a Marine Garden gives it these designation that allows us to put some restrictions on things like harvesting and also, most importantly, it allows us to put an education program in place to help teach people about the ecosystem, the wildlife that is there, why it’s important and to show them how we can sustainably interact with that environment so that it can continue to thrive and be enjoyed for many generations down the road.

MillerSo let’s turn to mussels, one of the big reasons we want to have you on today. What is their role in the local ecosystem?


Ennis:  Mussels are actually a really important part of an ecosystem. A lot of people consider them to be either engineers or some sort of cleaners of the ocean. So all bivalves, of which mussels are a part, play a huge role in filtering out water. So they will capture a lot of organic matter in the ocean and then they will essentially clean out, removing bacteria, removing fungi that free floats around and they will filter out plankton, which is what they use to feed themselves and to grow their shells. Then those shells are continued to be used in the ecosystem itself, both whenever the muscle is living, as a space for other animals to attach and live on, and whenever it gets broken down and degrades back into the ocean ecosystem into raw mineral components.

MillerWhat’s the evidence that mussels are being poached, illegally taken from this protected area?

Ennis:  So it’s pretty obvious whenever a bird has been foraging on a mussel and also whenever there’s things like some kind of natural strike that happened with the ocean.

And then it’s, it’s a pretty clear pattern whenever there is shocking done by human tools. Usually we use a bit of scraping and cutting with hand tools to get the muscles removed off the rock. And typically they’ll come off in large batches, whenever it’s done by people. And in a lot of the areas when we see poaching, tends to be in really well established communities of mussels, not ones that are readily most accessible for birds and especially when it’s at nighttime. That’s not the time that most birds, that feed on the mussels, are even foraging on them. So we see just what essentially looks like these ugly bald patterns on the rock that are very strikingly not natural.

MillerAnd this is normally happening at night?

Ennis:  Yes, there are two low tides during a day and typically it falls out that one of them is during the daylight and one of them is in the evening. Our program is only out on the beach during daylight low tides, educating people and helping to enforce some of the regulations in the area, but we are not out at night time after dark. And normally sometimes whenever we do find these locations, it’s the very next morning in the early low tide when we know that there was a long exposure, low tide in the night before.

MillerAnd also there’s more evidence that the people who are taking these mussels know exactly what they’re doing and they know that they’re not allowed to do it?

Ennis:  Exactly. Yeah. We’ve, unfortunately, seen an increase of nighttime tide pooling, which can be a fun activity. We see a lot of flashlights out there. But also scientists don’t know a lot about the impact of that light on our tide pool ecosystem because it is very unnatural. We always worry that sometimes that night time tide pool isn’t just for exploration, but is a poaching harvesting situation.

MillerWhat’s the connection between these mussels and sea stars, which as listeners may remember because of this sea star wasting disease in recent years, their numbers have plummeted by incredible proportions - more than 90% in places. How are mussels connected?

Ennis:  So whenever I tell people if they want to find a sea star and they’re out at the tide pool, they need to look at the mussel beds. Sea stars are primarily feeding on our mussels. And when it comes to the sea star wasting syndrome recovery that we’re trying to monitor, we’re really optimistic whenever we look among those mussel beds. That’s where we’re seeing what we call sea star nurseries. So this is whenever we see a high concentration of young baby sea stars. And during our surveys for sea star wasting syndrome we’re noticing that the babies are incredibly healthy. But it’s hard to see them if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

So if you just see this big, beautiful mussel that you’re thinking, I’m gonna harvest and take, you might not notice this tiny, about a quarter of a centimeter sized, sea star that is sitting on it. And there are times that we’ve looked on one individual mussel, we can see five little sea stars on them. And so we want to help keep the ecosystem protected and safe for that population to grow. Because we are still worried about it. We did lose, as you mentioned, 92% of our population in 2013. And it takes a long time for a population of that size to truly recover.

MillerDo you have a sense where cracking down on mussel poaching or mussel poachers sits in Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s priorities?

Ennis:  I know they have a lot of problems to deal with and probably not enough officers and rangers to really cover all their bases. Unfortunately, it’s just a lot for the ocean. I can’t say specifically where mussels, in particular, sit but we do know in general that the ocean is sensitive and it’s becoming increasingly more sensitive as we have more impacts from climate change becoming apparent. And we’re just starting to learn and study while at the same time trying to continue to let these industries that depend upon ocean ecosystems thrive. And of course personal recreational enjoyment still is a thing. So it’s hard to balance and it’s a lot. It’s not just mussels. There are a lot of animals and species out there that are struggling.

And so this is where I always tell people that instead of relying heavily on our officials, it’s really important to be a steward of the environment and teach each other and encourage each other as community citizens. Hey, this is our communal resource that we really care about. We should be responsible here and we should share the knowledge that we have whenever we come about it.

MillerWhy are people taking these mussels illegally?

Ennis:  I guess I can’t say why illegally. I totally understand why people are taking mussels in general. It is a permitted activity and they are delicious. These are one of our best foods that we have available on the Oregon coast, along with our Dungeness crabs and other shellfish. As far as why they are taking them illegally, I guess, that part, I don’t understand because we have a lot of other sites that you can harvest from legally. And our take isn’t particularly low. You can take 72 muscles a day with an ODFW permit. And so to me, I truly don’t understand why there would be a need to have to harvest from a site that is protected.

MillerKelli Ennis, thanks very much for joining us today.

Ennis:  Thank you for having me.

Miller:  Kelli Ennis is the director of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. She joined us to talk about Marine Gardens at Haystack Rock and mussel poaching.

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