Win-win for freshwater mussel conservation

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

“Halftime!” I yelled as my watch hit 3:52 pm. The divers in the stream look up at me, nod, and resume their underwater search along the mucky creek bed.
Would you ever consider freshwater mussel surveys and the sport of football to have similar strategies? I didn’t, until I observed a mussel survey first-hand. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in their freshwater mussel surveys in the tributaries to the Upper Allegheny River region to determine if mussels exist in the stream, if so, what kind of mussels, and if they are rare or endangered mussels.

Mussels play a very important role in an aquatic ecosystem; they act as a water purifier as they filter the water for food. Unfortunately, increased sedimentation, pollution, and exotic species like zebra mussels have contaminated the tributaries of the Upper Allegheny River, leaving mussels imperiled. Several freshwater mussel species are now federally-listed as an endangered species because their populations have dwindled as a result of the adverse stream conditions.


Gearing up for the survey.

The game plan.

  • Search for and identify freshwater mussels in the streambed (the arena).
  • Biologists start by flagging the boundaries of their survey area (their field).
  • The survey area is equally divided among the biologists (coaches), who survey their section, called a cell, using snorkel equipment (gear), looking for freshwater mussels (players).
  • Once a mussel is found, it is placed in a mesh bag that the biologists carry on their backs as they swim, keeping the mussels cool and underwater.
  • Biologists are warned at “halftime,” and then again after one hour and 15 minutes when “time” is called. Much like football, the survey is timed so that one stream is not given more attention than another.

Check out this clip of one of the biologists diving to capture the mussels!


  • The biologists convene and separate the mussels by cell, then identify and record each by species.
  • The length of every mussel is measured and recorded.
  • Finally, the mussels are carefully placed back in the sediment where they were found by digging a shallow hole and placing the mussel “foot”-side down. The mussel will eventually burrow deeper into the sediment.

Just like every football player has statistics that denote how well they play, biologists collect mussel data that tell us the health of the mussel population and its habitat. Like coaches, biologists use this information to make important conservation decisions. For example, if a biologist notices a particular freshwater mussel species is declining, they can pass legislation under the Endangered Species Act that will help protect the species, like the Clubshell mussel and the recently listed Rayed bean (Endangered).

Biologists hope for healthy mussels within a functional stream ecosystem, just as coaches hope for strong, healthy and successful football players. Freshwater mussel surveys and football games help determine who those star players/species are, and which ones need a little help, which is why mussel surveys are important for freshwater mussel conservation. The data will be used to make important conservation management decisions that will ultimately protect freshwater mussel species and the health of our waterways (Touchdown!).

Even though mussel surveying and football are two completely different activities, we can see that the goals of conservation and sports are not so far off after all.

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