Science Excellence

2014 Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence (Individual)

Photo of Nathan Eckert. Credit: USFWSNathan Eckert


Conservation Application

In North America there is no fauna at greater risk of extinction than the freshwater mussel. It is estimated that 43% of the 300 species of freshwater mussels are in danger of extinction. The current extinction rate (percent loss per decade) for freshwater mussels is 1.2% and is estimated to be 6.4% in the future. Historically, the Midwest boasted the most diverse collection of mussels in the world. But today, the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio list more than half of their 78 known mussel species as endangered, threatened, or requiring special concern. Nathan Eckert has been the mussel propagation biologist at the USFWS's Genoa National Fish Hatchery since 2010. Since his arrival, he has helped the station produce over 14.7 million mussels of 17 species, with 4.7 million of those being 4 federally listed species. Through his efforts over 50,000 subadult endangered mussels have been returned to over 6 different essential habitat areas, and the Service has gained valuable capabilities in freshwater mussel habitat and quantitative population assessment through his expertise and scuba capabilities.

Nathan is currently in charge of propagation and management efforts of multiple recovery programs involving 4 species of federally endangered freshwater mussels in the Upper Mississippi River basin.  This involves coordinating recovery efforts with many federal, state, and NGO agencies and interests.  Nathan is considered an expert in his field in regards to mussel identification, propagation biology, and freshwater mussel life history, with many FWS and state partners contacting him for scientific data regarding the abundance, location, and reproductive biology of rare and endangered mussels. He also has been instrumental in the startup and maintenance of propagation programs of freshwater mussels, including recently listed species of mussels such as the sheepnose (Plethhobasus cyphyus) and snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra). Nathan also develops and revises propagation techniques for 17 species of mussels, most of which have never been cultured successfully before. These involve the pistolgrip mussel (Quadrula verrucosa) a state listed Endangered species in Iowa. He also is willing to share his knowledge and skills to effect conservation by accomplishing qualitative and quantitative mussel surveys to assess population trends for NRDA restoration efforts. He also recently prepared two chapters for an upcoming manual of freshwater mussel culture being developed by the National Conservation Training Center and taught a segment of the freshwater mussel propagation course at NCTC.  His creativity and tenacity in researching and implementing new techniques and rearing systems to influence survival is inspiring.  

Scientific Contribution

Photo of Nathan Eckert. Credit: USFWSNathan’s advances in endangered freshwater mussel recovery include the exploration and discovery of alternate host fish species for endangered mussels such as the sheepnose, and developing captive host fish populations from previously un-propagated or difficult to culture species such as the mudpuppy salamander, logperch, flathead catfish, and freshwater drum. His use of a streamside rearing trailer to enhance extended growth of year 1+ mussels as well as enhance survival of newly transformed mussels has caused a paradigm shift in freshwater mussel recovery. Recent releases of 2+ year Endangered Higgins Eye Pearlymussel have been increasing due to Nathan using different propagation techniques to increase early life history survival and growth rates.

He is also contacted on a regular basis to assist in mitigation efforts involving projects that impact freshwater mussel populations throughout the Midwest. The USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Science Center laboratory, one of the most prestigious research facilities in the nation, approaches Nathan to supply many rare mussel species for experiments testing biocides and pesticides that may affect freshwater mussel survival. Without his direct involvement in the zebra mussel biocide study, researchers would not be able to verify the efficacy and safety factor of proposed chemicals to native mussel species. Many toxicology labs have also contacted Nathan to supply juvenile freshwater mussels to examine safe water quality parameters for freshwater mussels and LC50 rates involving various contaminants.  He is also involved in the restoration efforts of two ongoing NRDA settlements, serving on the restoration team and supplying mussels in order to meet restoration goals. 

Extraordinary Results

Nathan’s recent advances in freshwater mussel culture include the development of a temperature regulated production system that allows for the mass production and capture of transformed juveniles directly off of the fish at set development schedules. His use of alternative rearing systems has allowed success of previously uncultured mussels to be cultured, such as the fawns foot (Truncilla donaciformis), pistolgrip mussel, and others. Nathan’s contribution to freshwater mussel propagation is resulting in an ongoing study to test a new biocide that selectively kills zebra mussels while not affecting freshwater mussel populations, which will give us a new tool to safely combat the invasive zebra mussel in the presence of freshwater mussels. Currently, the USGS lab in LaCrosse also is looking toward Nathan to determine if water cannons and CO2 applications can effectively deter Asian Carp migration while not harming native species such as paddlefish and freshwater mussels. His ability to monitor and collect data in underwater systems as well as provide animals and technical expertise is allowing experimentation such as this to occur. 


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Last updated: March 21, 2017

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