Category Archives: Contaminants

Restoring Rivers with a Little Mussel Power

Freshwater mussels are one of nature’s greatest natural filtration systems. A healthy bed of mussels, in a reach of river just 2 football fields long, can filter over half a million gallons of water every day.

Many cities use rivers for their drinking water. And the river water must be treated to remove fine sediments and harmful bacteria and algae we don’t want in our water. It costs slightly more than $2/1000 gallons to deliver clean water to our homes, with treatment accounting for 15% of those costs (EPA). In 2005, Cincinnati, OH treated 136 million gallons per day; that’s over $17 million per year!

Rivers where freshwater mussel beds are intact could cost less to treat because mussels have been doing their job. “Filtering and recycling nutrients within food webs is an important job and these ecological engineers do it for free” says Dr. Danielle Kreeger, Science Director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

Because mussels don’t move much (and certainly not quickly!), they are vulnerable to chronic pollution in the water and changes in habitat, including sediment buildup. Additionally, as rivers have been dammed and altered fish are harder to find above some barriers,

making mussel reproduction much harder. Over 70% of the 300 species of mussels in North America have been in decline for decades. Since the Clean Water Act, however, water quality has improved in many of our rivers. And through several other federal programs, we are restoring river habitats and removing barriers to fish passage.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began investing in freshwater mussel culture (and stocking) of freshwater mussels for recovering endangered species back in the late 1990s. We also have been collaborating with State agencies to culture species that formerly comprised a large portion of the biomass in rivers. Those methods are now helping restore these ecological engineers and recover endangered species.

In 2007, we partnered with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) to restore freshwater mussels in Atlantic slope rivers of Virginia. The Virginia Fisheries and Aquatic Wildlife Center (VFAWC) at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery (NFH) has been raising more than 12 different species, thanks in part to the work of biologist Rachel Mair, hatchery manager Michael Odom and Brian Watson from Virginia DGIF.

Rachel Mair, Harrison Lake NFH freshwater mussels are reared in floating baskets in these productive ponds. Credit: USFWS

The partnership has released over 185,000 mussels into Virginia rivers, including the Rappahannock, Appomattox, Mattaoponi, Pamunkey, Meherrin and Nottoway. They also are helping the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary restore mussels (and rivers) in the Delaware River basin.

The work hasn’t stopped there. The partnership is currently raising many at-risk mussel species including:

  • Endangered James spinymussel: 1,000 being raised and PIT tagged for stocking in the James River this fall
  • Atlantic pigtoe: petitioned for listing
  • Green floater: petitioned for listing
  • Brook floater: petitioned for listing
  • Yellow lampmussel
  • Triangle floater
  • Notched rainbow

Indeed, the VFAWC will be raising many of the above species to restore ecosystem health back to the Dan River, Roanoke River basin. The Dan is a life source for residents in North Carolina and Virginia. The river provides drinking water, is used for recreational and subsistence fishing, for canoeing and kayaking, to irrigate crops and provide water to cattle. In 2014, however, a coal ash spill occurred near Eden, NC, that extended 70 miles downstream. The hatchery will be raising and stocking mussels, a critical step to restoring both species and ecosystem services mussels provide.

“If the causes for harm and degradation are removed, the environment can heal as long as the seeds for getting started are still there”, says Brian Watson. He adds “In the case of freshwater mussels with a complicated life cycle, it could take decades for a bed to rebuild itself. That’s why they need a little assistance to jump start the process and boost their numbers.”

Elyssa Mills, James River Association and Hanna Walker (right), student stock mussels at Presquile NWR. Credit: CBrame, USFWS

Lucky for us, we have dedicated biologists with the Service and the Virginia DGIF developing methods for restoring rivers using a little mussel power.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery staff support the Virginia Fisheries and Aquatic Wildlife Center. Credit: Gatenby, USFWS

 

A stretch below Highland dam that is a good representation of what the stream will look like once dams are removed. Credit: Nick Millett/USFWS

With Some Mussel, We Move Dams.

I ended my first week with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service waist deep in the West Fork River cleaning up the decades of trash recently exposed due to 2 of 3 successful obsolete dam removals. Now finally, the third and final dam has been dismantled.

This day has long been awaited; 9 years in the making. It took years of planning, grant-writing, regulation checking, and public hearings to embark on West Virginia’s very first stream enhancement dam removal project.

The project targeted 3 obsolete low-head dams: West Milford Dam – 94 years old, Two Lick Dam – 105 years old, and Highland Dam – 85 years old. The dams were established for drinking water and irrigation purposes, but construction of the Stonewall Jackson Dam in 1990 rendered these 3 dams obsolete. With the deconstruction of these century old dams, fish are now free to migrate through 491 miles of streams and tributaries upstream of the Hartland Dam. The West Fork River reconnection is the state’s most significant river restoration effort.

The dam removals will eliminate the safety hazards low-head dams create, while improving water quality, river habitat, and opportunities to fish and paddle on the river.  Restoration on the river will increase safety, cleanliness, and the natural beauty of the West Fork River within Harrison County. There is a national effort to remove these obsolete dams and restore rivers. Since the movement push over the past two decades, the Service, along with partners, has removed more than 1,600 barriers to fish passage.

 

After the dams were removed the water level dropped, more than ten feet in some parts of the river. The extreme weight of these saturated streambanks led to bank sloughing and roadway collapse in vulnerable areas.  The Service worked with the West Virginia Division of Highways to address areas of concern and reinforce potential bank failures. Another task was the relocation of freshwater mussels stranded by the receding waters. Crews from AllStar Ecology LLC, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Davis and Elkins College, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan program, joined our office to gather and relocate 1,430 stranded native mussels representing 9 species from the exposed river banks. The mussels were recorded for species data and transferred to newly established riffle/run habitat along the West Fork River.

 

In order to beautify the banks along the West Fork River, crews of volunteers set out over many weekends to help remove trash and large debris. Some items removed from the river included a whole car, a car frame, washing machines, furniture, televisions, and even a wooden slot machine! In 8 volunteer crew clean-ups, over 54,000 pounds of trash and 818 tires were pulled from the river. West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection REAP has worked with the Service to properly dispose of the removed debris. Trash removal efforts will continue in the spring in cooperation with Fishing Report WV, a Facebook group comprised of local fisherman dedicated to cleaning up rivers throughout the state.

In the coming year, plans have been set forth to install a structure at the Hartland Dam to provide passage to fish and non-motorized boaters. This will increase the newly reconnected river and stream another 32 miles, from a total of 491 to 523 contiguous miles returning free-flowing conditions not seen in a century. Free-flowing water encourages diversity and resilient river ecosystems that flush nutrient, pollution, and sediment. By doing so, the river supports freshwater mussels and fish populations and enhances fishing for sport species.

Nearly a century of obstruction, 9 years of coordination, and 9 months of deconstruction;  finally, the fish are able to swim freely once again on the West Fork River.

Project partners include the Clarksburg Water Board, Canaan Valley Institute, Southwestern Energy, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, American Rivers, AllStar Ecology, LLC., West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Fishing Report WV, Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, National Fish Passage Program, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The race to save the golden riffleshell

The golden riffleshell… sounds like an exotic treasure to us. It’s not gold or any fancy metal for that matter, but to some it is a treasure: to those that know the role of freshwater mussels in water quality and food webs, to those that know that some of the rarest mussels in the world live in the Appalachia, and to those biologists who discovered that this very freshwater mussel had clung to survival at the edge of extinction. Read the story below from Roberta Hylton and Jess Jones of our Southwest Virginia office and Leroy Koch of our Kentucky office.

 In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

The quiet, pastoral landscape of remote southwestern Virginia was filled with sudden loud cheers when biologists managed to collect three golden riffleshell mussels from a stream near Cedar Bluff, Virginia.

This endangered species – which is listed as the tan riffleshell, despite a recent change in its scientific name – is now likely one of the rarest freshwater mussels on Earth.

It survives only in a single, small and isolated population in Indian Creek, a tributary to the Clinch River, and biologists racing to save it from extinction were thrilled to discover that not only were the golden riffleshell they had found all female, they were also carrying glochidia, which is what immature, young mussels are called.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton/USFWS

 The golden riffleshell is just one of the many freshwater mussels species that call the Clinch River watershed home. In fact, the region boasts one of the most diverse assemblages of these freshwater animals in the U.S. With fanciful names such as birdwing pearlymussel, Appalachian monkeyface, and rough rabbitsfoot, these animals provide a critical role, filtering and cleaning river water. They serve as “bio-indicators,” letting us know when something is not quite right in our waterways.

“We are lucky to have such incredible diversity right in our backyard and it is our responsibility to ensure its future,” says Sarah Colletti of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “If we can maintain healthy diverse freshwater mussel communities in our rivers, then we know we are doing a good job of protecting water quality too, and clean water is important to us all.”

Over the years, the golden riffleshell and a number of other freshwater mussel species found in the Clinch River watershed have dwindled to precariously low numbers, and locating individuals has become highly problematic. Today, biologists believe there are less than a few hundred golden riffleshell left in a single stretch of stream.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have recognized for years now that the golden riffleshell and other freshwater mussels throughout the Upper Tennessee River Basin face incredible challenges to their survival. Though government regulations have brought about water quality improvements, freshwater mussels and fish are harmed wherever streams are affected by poor land use practices, mining, industrial spills, climate change, invasive species and other factors.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit: Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Biologists with our agency, with Kentucky and Virginia, Virginia Tech, and The Nature Conservancy worked cooperatively and quickly this past March to extract the glochidia and return the females unharmed back to Indian Creek. The glochidia were transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation where scientists are using new techniques in an attempt to grow the species in captivity and help increase its population.

The golden riffleshell is on the brink of extinction. Still, conservationists hope that if we work hard and fast, we just may have a chance to save it.

While habitat conservation, restoration of water quality, and educating the public about the values of aquatic ecosystems are important components of recovery efforts, for the golden riffleshell, culturing (i.e., growing) this species in the laboratory is likely this species’ last best hope. Culturing mussels isn’t easy because the life cycle of a freshwater mussel is one of the most complex in the animal world.

In the past, biologists have used a variety of conventional techniques to propagate golden riffleshell, but success has been limited as numbers in the wild have continued to decline. However, efforts led by Monte McGregor of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Center for Mollusk Conservation to refine lab techniques for culturing mussels in serum extracted from the blood of rabbits offered new hope for saving the golden riffleshell. McGregor and his staff have been successful in propagating and culturing the tan riffleshell, which is closely related to the golden riffleshell, from the Cumberland River system in Kentucky. If the success using rabbit serum can be repeated for the golden riffleshell, biologists just might be able to accomplish their mission to save this small aquatic animal.

biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The determination of biologists who are partnering across state lines in Virginia and Kentucky is paying off.

From the three gravid (with young mussels) female golden riffleshell collected in Virginia in March, the Kentucky Center for Mollusk Conservation has successfully used rabbit serum to rear about 12,000 glochidia to the juvenile stage.

While there may be some mortality, this first batch of mussels appear to be among the healthiest ever cultured by McGregor and we expect a few thousand will make it to larger sizes suitable for reintroduction into the wild. Although some of the young mussels will remain at the Kentucky facility, by mid to late summer of this year, many will be transported to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, Virginia, and Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, Virginia, to allow for continuous monitoring and growth.

Eventually, if all goes well, the young golden riffleshells will be released back into the wild. The road ahead may be a long one, but the success of propagating golden riffleshell to date has provided new hope in the race to save this species.

This story originally appeared on our website and in our Endangered Species Bulletin Summer 2016 edition.