Freshwater Pearl Mussel
Exploitation of freshwater pearl mussels has taken place since pre-Roman times. The earliest reference to their occurrence in Britain is by Julius Caesar's biographer, Suetonius, who stated that Caeser's admiration of pearls was a reason for inspiring the first Roman invasion in 55BC. In Scotland, the earliest reference dates back to the 12th century when Alexander I, King of Scots, was said to have the best pearl collection of any man living. The medieval poem 'The Parl' which dates from the late 14th century is another early reference to freshwater pearl mussels in Scotland.
There are further references in the 16th and 17th centuries that indicate a growing commercial exploitation of Scottish pearl mussels. At this time the famous Kelly pearl was collected from a tributary of the River Ythan and is thought to be part of the Scottish crown jewels. However, there were soon the first indications that the collection of pearls in Scotland was unsustainable and overfishing was taking place. This followed the arrival in Scotland during 1861 of Moritz Unger, a merchant from Germany. He encouraged the freshwater pearl trade by offering to buy all pearls that could be collected.
This resulted in many people being employed in the industry but, as too many mussels were collected, it gradually became more difficult to find pearl-bearing mussels and the trade declined.
Since the 19th century there has been a smaller-scale fishery for freshwater pearls, yet dramatic declines in freshwater pearl mussel abundance and distribution have still been recorded over the past 100 years. This decline seems to have accelerated more recently with evidence that pearl mussels have become extinct from an average of two rivers every year in Scotland since 1970. Such declines resulted in full legal protection in 1998.
“As all who search, do by experience try, And we oftimes; therewith I loudlie cry.
Good master Gall, behold I found a pearle, A jewel I assure you for an Earle.
Be silent, said good Gall, or speak at leisure, For men will cut your throat to get your treasure”
The Muses's Threnodie: of Mirthful Mournings on the death of Mr Gall.
By Henry Adamson, 1638