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Wolf Creek and KDFWR go mussellin’

Four biologists sift through mussels on a dock.
Purple catspaws juveniles being loaded into mussel cages. Photo by Makenzie Foster, USFWS.

To the untrained eye, freshwater mussels are often overlooked or mistaken for rocks or other debris in stream beds and riverways. North America, particularly the Eastern United States, maintains the highest diversity of these animals. Freshwater mussels play a vital role in aquatic ecosystems as bioindicators and as natural in-stream filters, yet they rarely get the recognition they deserve. Their population numbers are declining due to a combination of factors including reduction in water quality due to pollution, habitat degradation, and the introduction of invasive species.

In an attempt to combat these concerns, Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery launched a partnership with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) to propagate, grow, and replenish the native mussel populations in this region.

Beginning in 2014, Wolf Creek constructed floating racks with cages to house the mussels once KDFWR had propagated and grown them to a desirable size. Once in the cages, the mussels were left for several months (some to overwinter) in Lake Cumberland. Though many of these mussel species do not occur naturally in Lake Cumberland, there has been substantial success with this site, believed to be a result of warmer water. Following the conclusion of the grow-out season, the Service and KDFWR employees join together to harvest them from the cages. Then KDFWR stocks the mussel species in the water system most appropriate for each particular type of mussel.

Dozens of dark colored mussels in an underwater cage
Purple Catspaws harvested at Lake Cumberland. Photo by Makenzie Foster, USFWS.

On Sept. 27h, 2019, staff from Wolf Creek personnel and KDFWR’s Center for Mollusk Conservation Center teamed up to harvest freshwater mussels from rearing cages suspended in Lake Cumberland. Ten cages were pulled from the rearing system, which provided 1,772 individuals of the Cumberland bean mussel, which are endemic to the Cumberland/Tennessee river systems. They were produced at the KDFWR facility using a fairly new propagation method known as in vitro, which eliminates the use of host fish. These individuals were taken to Rockcastle Creek, where they were stocked by KDFWR employees.

On Oct. 7, 2019, Wolf Creek personnel joined KDFWR employees once again to harvest purple catspaw from Lake Cumberland. The purple catspaw is one of the rarest freshwater mussel species in the world. Following the catspaw harvest, juveniles of other mussel species were placed back into the cages as replacements. Some of these species included Cumberland bean, pink mucket, and more purple catspaw.

Freshwater mussels play a vital role in several aquatic ecosystems across the globe, yet rarely get the recognition they deserve. Help us provide optimal habitat for these animals by keeping our waterways clean, conserving water, and following biosecurity protocols to reduce the spread of invasive species.

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