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Mussel Relocation Boosts Ecosystems

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson prepares to place tagged juvenile northern riffleshell mussels in the Allegheny River at East Brady. The young riffleshells — an endangered species — were bred in a fish hatchery from adult stock that biologists rescued before a bridge demolition.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson prepares to place tagged juvenile northern riffleshell mussels in the Allegheny River at East Brady. The young riffleshells — an endangered species — were bred in a fish hatchery from adult stock that biologists rescued before a bridge demolition.
Credit: Janet Butler, USFWS
Student intern Whitney Wiest (right) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson measure mussels from the Allegheny River bridge monitoring site.

Student intern Whitney Wiest (right) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson measure mussels from the Allegheny River bridge monitoring site.

Credit: Doug Canfield, USFWS

Three years after the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge helped rescue 16,000 mussels — including 128 endangered northern riffleshells and 19 endangered clubshells — from an Allegheny River bridge demolition, the bivalves are now thriving. Some are back under the bridge at East Brady, Pennsylvania. Others are improving habitat and human health more than 100 miles away in the Monongahela, Elk and Ohio Rivers.

When mussels are in harm's way, biologists usually move them a short distance upriver. But in this project, they moved them to several distant sites to foster broader-scale conservation.

"It's really the first time we know of that these animals were moved far off site and benefited other streams needing a boost," says Ohio River Refuge biologist Patty Morrison.

Ohio River Islands Refuge's expertise in mussel conservation was key to the project. For a year and a half before mussel relocation began in 2004, the refuge and its partners — Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — ran diving operations, set protocols and decided where to move the mussels. Endangered species were sent to the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery for propagation.  

When biologists sampled the bridge site last year, they liked what they saw. "We found a very high concentration of juveniles," says Morrison. "That means the areas are being recolonized. The endangered mussels we found were less than three years old, which means they are recruiting."

The project also restored eight mussel species to the refuge's stretch of the Ohio River. Some species had been absent from the river for almost 100 years because of upstream industrial pollution.

Learn more about Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

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