Pearl Mussels in Peril

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Of some 300 species of pearl mussels native to North American freshwaters, nearly half have been lost or are in peril. About 35 species have become extinct, most of these within the past 50 years. State and federal agencies formally list more than 60 other species as endangered or threatened, and nearly 50 species are of "special concern," with their populations expected to decline to threatened or endangered levels.

Habitat destruction, alterations such as dredging and damming, declining water quality and competition from introduced species are to blame for these problems. No conclusive proof exists that any freshwater pearl mussel species in North America has been lost due to harvesting of pearls or shells. Nonetheless, governmental regulations protecting pearl mussels now ban the harvesting of listed species and severely limit the locations that can be fished.