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Protecting Our Waters
The mussels of Virginia's Clinch and Powell Rivers
By Meagan Racey
Photo Credit: Gary Peeples, USFWS
"What do we use the river for?" Mike Pinder, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, asked a group of elementary students standing knee-deep in southwestern Virginia's Clinch River.
"Swimming and fishing!" one boy answered enthusiastically.
"What animal helps keep it clean?" Pinder asked.
The boy proudly shared his new knowledge: "Mussels!"
Pinder then began helping students place freshwater mussels in the sand and gravel of the Clinch River.
In September 2010, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries – with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), these elementary students, and other volunteers – released more than 6,500 mussels of seven species, including the federally endangered oyster mussel (Epioblasma capsaeformis). This was a monumental moment in freshwater mussel conservation, as this was the largest release of endangered mussels to date in the eastern U.S.
The 2,500 endangered oyster mussels released were raised at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center near Marion, and Virginia Tech's Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg to help the restoration or bolstering of existing mussel populations in the wild. Many more thousands of mussels since then have been raised at these centers.
Mussels once blanketed the bottom of Virginia streams and rivers, but these ancient creatures have struggled to survive the severe damage inflicted on these waters. From dams and dredging to pollution and new exotic species, the deterioration of the nation's waterways is woven into our history of agriculture, mining, and other industrial development.
As the Commonwealth sped through the 20th Century, its freshwater mussels began a slow decline that continues today, losing three mussel species altogether and putting 24 mussel species on the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
The Service listed the oyster mussel as endangered in 1997. However, many of its relatives, such as the Appalachian monkeyface (Quadrula sparsa) and birdwing pearlymussel (Lemiox rimosus) gained federal protection back in 1976. That year marked the first group of mussels to be protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973; its predecessor, the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act, listed only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
Photo Credit: USFWS
"Passage of the ESA was a real mark in our nation's history, reflecting society's recognition that all life forms, including those without a backbone, had inherent value and were important in characterizing the fabric of this country's natural heritage," said Richard Biggins, a retired Service biologist who spent his career working to recover dozens of aquatic species under the ESA.
According to biologists, there are many reasons to care about freshwater mussels. They filter water through their gills, making them one of the few animals that actually improve water quality. A single mussel can filter 10 gallons or more of water each day. The food particles that they filter out later serve as food to fish and other animals, and mussels themselves are food for muskrats and other wildlife.
The filtering ability of the mussel is also what makes it vulnerable. They assimilate toxins and contaminants in their bodies, protecting the water they filter, but many contaminants, like ammonia and salt, cause mortality. Increased sediment and changes from dams can smother mussels, stifle their reproductive success, and eliminate the water flow needed for survival.
The oyster mussel was once one of the most widely distributed mussels in the free-flowing waters in the Tennessee and Cumberland River watersheds. Dams later turned fast-moving rivers into stagnant lakes, changed water temperatures and degraded habitat, and various forms of pollution increased.
Today, the oyster mussel is known in only three river reaches in Tennessee and Virginia. The waters that flow in and through these rivers – the Clinch, Powell and Nolichucky – support the nation's largest variety of wildlife, including nearly 50 species of freshwater mussels—more than 20 are federally listed.
To restore the oyster mussel, biologists are focused on preserving existing populations and their habitats, re-establishing populations of mussels in their historical home ranges, and further monitoring and research to better understand the needs of freshwater mussels.
Photo Credit: Gary Peeples, USFWS
"Across these three rivers, we've released up to 20,000 oyster mussels," said Jess Jones, a biologist in the Service's Virginia Ecological Services Field Office. "We're trying to recover this mussel by strengthening existing populations in these rivers and establishing at least five additional populations. This significant effort is taking federal, state, and non-governmental organizations, from Virginia down to Alabama."
In addition to raising and releasing mussels, these partners, including The Nature Conservancy, have encouraged landowners to use best management practices, such as preventing erosion and pollution by keeping livestock out of streams and reestablishing trees and other vegetation along banks.
Agencies are also working together to reduce impacts to rivers and streams by using more protective regulations and standards for forestry, sewage treatment, mining, road and bridge maintenance and other activities. Yet more work is necessary to address the sensitivity of mussels to even low levels of pollution and habitat disturbance.
"To truly return freshwater mussels from the brink of extinction, we'll have to restore and protect populations and their habitats," said Jones. "Pristine waters are crucial for mussels and our nation's vitality. Mussel conservation embraces both our natural heritage and the values we place on our rivers and streams. We'll have to work together to solve over a century of impacts that got us here."
Meagan Racey, a public affairs specialist in the Service's Northeast Regional Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-253-8558.
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