Not just rocks: The mussels of our rivers and streams

Today you’re hearing from Meagan Racey, who handles public affairs and media relations for Ecological Services, on her recent encounter with freshwater mussels. This post is part of a series running all month on freshwater mussels, highlighting their importance to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

The sky beamed blue above, and the sun shined down on me below as I sliced the clear water with my paddle—shwoosh down the right side of the kayak, and shwoosh down the left side. From the shoreline, a great blue heron watched me wearily, and up ahead a bald eagle peered from the treetop. Minnows darted under the water and water bugs glided across the top.

Today you’re hearing from Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist, on her recent encounter with freshwater mussels.

Today you’re hearing from Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist, on her recent encounter with freshwater mussels.

It’s hard to beat a day on the water. My trip down a portion of New England’s longest river, the Connecticut River, started at Greenfield, Mass., and amid all the beautiful details I mentioned above, one unmentioned characteristic struck me the most – the littering of freshwater mussels poking up from the bottom of the clear river.

More than ten types of freshwater mussels live in the Connecticut River, including the endangered dwarf wedgemussel. Like many others, I imagine, I had overlooked these special residents of the river. But what you won’t overlook is the overall beauty of a river that has freshwater mussels.

Mussels are our silent sentinels—the guards of our waters. They indicate healthy water systems, which means good resources for drinking water, fishing, waterfowl and other species, and for kayaking, of course. Not to mention, freshwater mussels have quite an intriguing reproductive cycle; they go “fishing” and tack onto fish for a nutritious ride. And they have, hands down, some of the most interesting names – from the endangered snuffbox and northern riffleshell to the rough rabbitsfoot and Appalachian monkeyface.

Declining or at-risk mussel populations indicate problems for other fish and wildlife species—even people, too. By conserving them, we can also help conserve our water quality and the diverse aquatic wildlife and other species dependent on healthy water systems.

Propogated mussels for release. Credit: USFWS

Propagated mussels for release. Credit: USFWS

Across the Northeast landscape, freshwater mussels have faced extensive changes to their aquatic homes—from dams and changes in sedimentation to pollution and new exotic species. These smother mussels, stifle their reproductive success and eliminate the water flow needed by mussels for survival.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works in a number of ways with partners to conserve freshwater mussels and the clean waters they, and we, depend on:

  • We raise mussels in fish hatcheries, such as the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia;
  • We use some of those captive-raised (propagated) mussels to compare with wild mussels and test the toxicity of discharges, such as testing road salts and cyanide in Virginia’s Powell River watershed;
  • We work with EPA to update their contingency plans for spill response in sensitive mussel areas;
  • We release common and rare mussels into rivers and streams, such as in Virginia’s Clinch River;
  • We monitor water quality by testing levels of pesticides and impacts on mussels, such as endangered dwarf wedgemussels in New Hampshire’s Ashuelot River (study PDF);
  • We return streams, rivers and creeks to natural water flow and channels to restore habitat, such as Hackers Creek off West Virginia’s West Fork River;
  • We collaborate with states, local communities and other federal agencies to ensure that water quality standards protect fish and wildlife;
  • We coordinate with federal agencies and others under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act to protect mussels and clean water; and
  • In some cases, we protect and relocate mussels when their habitat is temporarily threatened by new projects, such as a bridge or dam removal.

Mussels aren’t delicate creatures. They’re tough enough to withstand temporary harsh conditions, but their decline shows that there have been significant, long-term changes negatively affecting their habitat—changes dramatic enough to challenge the survival of these unique animals. Fortunately, the Service is taking action to help avoid these losses – in ways that everyone can support to help save our freshwater mussels.

On your next paddle, whether on the Connecticut or another river, take a closer look at the bottom. Maybe those are just rocks or leftovers from a clam bake – or if you’re lucky, maybe they’re our silent sentinels, staring up at you through clear running water.

Read more from our freshwater mussel series!

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