Giving mussels a boost in Tenn.’s Powell River

Today you’re hearing from Jess Jones, a restoration biologist with the Service’s Virginia Field Office, on releasing the largest group of three endangered mussels in the Powell River. 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.

Biologist Jess Jones distributes mussels. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Biologist Jess Jones distributes mussels. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Every once in a while everything just works out. 

Today was such a day — cool and sunny, an early fall afternoon on the Powell River in northeastern Tennessee, where biologists and students worked together to release endangered mussels. Heavy rains occurred the week before, but the water level dropped just in time to stock them in the river, 5,500 oyster mussels (Epioblasma capsaeformis), 1,000 Cumberlandian combshells (Epioblasma brevidens), and 27 snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra). The young mussels were 1-2 years old and about 20-30 mm long.

A handful of oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

A handful of oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Students, staff and faculty from Virginia Tech and nearby Lincoln Memorial University put the mussels at four sites spanning about a six-mile section of the river. The release sites were shallow and scenic, where people waded around in participation. They were joined by biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who helped coordinate the event.

Staff and students from Virginia Tech at the release site finding mussels with PIT tags, electronic tags with numbers and letters that identify individual mussels. Credit: USFWS

Staff and students from Virginia Tech at the release site finding mussels with PIT tags, electronic tags with numbers and letters that identify individual mussels. Credit: USFWS

This event represented the largest recovery effort to date for these species in the river – part of a larger effort involving Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to establish multiple populations throughout the upper Tennessee River watershed. 

University partners played an integral role. The mussels were propagated and reared at Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, and students from Lincoln Memorial helped identify release sites by mapping mussel habitat in the river using GIS technology. The eventual goal is to restore self-sustaining populations and de-list each species.

Hear Jess Jones talk about this mussel restoration project. Video by Lincoln Memorial University.

The Powell River is a headwater tributary of the Tennessee River and is among the most biologically diverse rivers in the country. Nearly 100 fish species and 35 mussel species occur in the Powell River. In fact, there are more mussel species found in the Powell River than in all of Europe.

The river contains 13 mussel species listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That is the second highest concentration of rare and endangered mussels anywhere in the country. Only the neighboring Clinch River contains more endangered mussels. 

Historically, severe pollution from upstream sources caused populations to decline. Currently, numerous water quality and habitat restoration projects are under way to improve riparian (riverside) conditions and reduce pollution sources. 

Tagged oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Tagged oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Water and habitat quality are improving, especially in the Tennessee portion of the river. Native mussels, even some of the endangered ones, are beginning to reproduce again. 

Detecting young mussels is an indicator that habitat is suitable for stocking hatchery-reared mussels. The mussels released today will be monitored annually for survival and growth to hopefully show they are doing well in their new home.

I am optimistic that by continuing to improve propagation technology for mussels, reducing and eliminating pollution sources, protecting habitat, and working with partners, recovery can be achieved for some species. 

Endangered female oyster mussel. Credit: USFWS

Endangered female oyster mussel. Credit: USFWS

We now have entered a decades-long period that will require active, hands-on population management to reduce extinction risk for many endangered mussels. Strong and lasting partnerships are essential. 

Today’s event was supported by the Service’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program, and the Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee field offices. Assistance from all involved was invaluable and greatly appreciated.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program uses non-taxpayer funds to restore natural resources, such as freshwater mussels and their habitat, damaged by oil spills or hazardous substance releases. The program empowers specific federal, state and tribal representatives to determine the extent of injury, negotiate a settlement with responsible parties, engage the public in developing a restoration plan, and use the settlement funds to implement restoration efforts that ultimately benefit wildlife, the landscape and residents.

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