Tennessee Mussels

Tennessee Mussels

The hard-shelled mussels that proliferate on the muddy floor of the Tennessee River have for decades created an unlikely windfall for the small communities in this patch of rural West Tennessee.

They are less-than-pretty on the outside, and practically no one will eat them. But through a quirk of evolutionary biology, the mussels were once central to the economy of the area, supporting hundreds of river divers, shell buyers and small businesses.

Round Pig Toe Mussel (Pleurobema Coccineum), a Freshwater Species, Central USA

Round Pig Toe Mussel (Pleurobema Coccineum), a Freshwater Species, Central USA

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The shellfish found along a few square miles of waterways in Benton County have a quality prized over mussels anywhere else. When their inner shells are ground into small beads — and inserted into oysters raised on farms in Asia — they grow into nearly flawless, round pearls.

Ninety percent of the world's most valuable pearls cultured in the past 50 years can trace their origins back to mussels harvested by Benton County divers.

Today, however, fewer people are buying on the world market. Several years of global recession, new and cheaper mass pearl cultivation techniques developed by the Chinese, and a series of environmental scourges among Japanese pearl farms have crushed what once was a $50 million per year shell export business down to about $4 million in 2009.

That's created tough times for small communities like Big Sandy and Camden, located about an hour and a half west of Nashville, as their populations shrink, businesses close and unemployment has soared to nearly 13 percent in Benton County alone.

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