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Freshwater mussels are bivalved mollusks, which means that they have two shells held together on one side by a hinge. They are also called clams, shellfish, or simply mussels. All but two of Alabama’s species belong to the family Unionidae, so they are referred to as unionids. The other two species are members of the Margaritiferidae and may be called margaritiferids.
Mussels are important to man as well as the environment. Because they are filter feeders, mussels serve as natural water filters to remove sediment, bacteria and excess algae from the water column. Since they are very sensitive to environmental changes they may also serve as indicators of water quality. Freshwater mussels also serve as food for many types of animals, including various fishes, otters, muskrats and several species of birds. Alabama has one of the most diverse mussel assemblages in the world with 182 species. Approximately half of North American mussel species, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico, have been reported from Alabama.
In addition to being incredibly diverse, some of Alabama’s mussel populations are very dense, and some species have substantial commercial value. In the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s mussel shell was the primary raw material for the pearl button industry. Thousands of pounds were harvested each year. The development of plastics in the 1940s reduced the demand for mussels as a button source, and the last pearl button factory closed in the 1960s.
As the button industry was coming to a close, a new use for freshwater mussel shell was discovered. Small cubes of mussel shell could be rounded and polished and inserted into an oyster to start a pearl. After a period of time, the cultured pearl is removed from the oyster and used in jewelry production.
The Tennessee River is the most important source of commercial mussels in the world, and the Alabama River system also contributes considerably to the U.S. shell export. During the 1990s, the yearly value of exported shell exceeded $20 million. However, demand for freshwater mussel shell has declined greatly since then due to a number of global economic factors.
Mussel populations can withstand regulated harvest, but other factors have led to declines in mussel numbers and diversity in many areas. River impoundment, channelization, siltation, and pollution, as well as modern industrialization, urban development and poor agricultural practices, have caused reductions in the mussel fauna in most rivers. Almost three-fourths of Alabama’s mussels are considered extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. Proper management, protection and monitoring of the surviving native mussel resources (especially habitat) are essential to preserve this biologically diverse group.
Commercial Musseling Regulations
The State of Alabama sets certain guidelines on the harvest of freshwater mussels. Consult the current regulations for species, size restrictions, and other harvest information. If you possess a valid fishing license, you may harvest Asiatic clams for bait. Commercial species of legal size may be collected with a valid commercial mussel catchers license. Other mussels must be returned immediately to the river. Possession of any part of a protected species is illegal, and penalties for a violation may include a fine and imprisonment.