Tag Archives: mussel

Improving a WV river’s health by bringing back endangered mussels

It was a beautiful autumn morning, a perfect day to be out on the Elk River, my favorite river in the state, and doing something I love: restoring populations of endangered mussels.

WATCH THE VIDEO
The WCHS-TV crew tagged along the day these endangered mussels were released. Check out the Healthy Mussels Means Health Rivers eyewitness webcast.

The Elk River has the highest diversity of fish and mussels of any watershed in West Virginia. It’s home to 100 types of fish and 30 types of freshwater mussels, including four endangered mussel species. Populations of many of these species have declined because of poor water quality in the river.

The Elk River, near where the endangered northern riffleshell mussels were re-introduced. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

The Elk River, near where the endangered northern riffleshell mussels were re-introduced. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

One of those endangered mussels, the northern riffleshell, hadn’t been seen here for almost 20 years. Fortunately, the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania still has a large northern riffleshell population, and our partners there were willing to allow us to transfer some of their mussels out of the path of a new highway bridge and into the Elk River, near an area where they historically occurred.

A lot of work had to be done before we could move the mussels to their new home. Existing mussel populations at the reintroduction site were monitored for a number of years to make sure that the area would be able to support the new group of northern riffleshell mussels. Then, after the mussels were gathered from Pennsylvania, the Service’s White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery held the mussels at their facility for two weeks to make sure that the mussels were healthy and that no non-native species hitched a ride in the water used to transport the mussels from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

West Virginia and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists check the mussels at the hatchery. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

West Virginia and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists check the mussels at the hatchery. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

Our partners with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources went down to the hatchery and attached miniature PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags onto the shell of each mussel. These small tags are similar to microchips used in dogs and will allow us to monitor the success of the reintroduction.

A PIT tag next to a northern riffleshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

A PIT tag next to a northern riffleshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/WVDNR

We will use a special waterproof scanner to find the mussels – even when they are underwater or buried in the bottom of the river – and the PIT tags will emit an electronic signal that will identify the location and identity of each individual mussel. We hope to go back many years from now and find healthy reproducing populations of northern riffleshell living in the Elk River.

We also hope to find that the entire Elk River ecosystem is healthier. Freshwater mussels help keep the river clean and healthy. They are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering their food out of the water, and in the process, the mussels act as natural water filters that clean sediment, organic matter, algae, bacteria and other contaminants out of the water. Nutrients excreted by mussels then serve as food for fish and other invertebrates, and the mussels themselves are a food source for animals such as river otters, muskrats and raccoons.

So rivers with healthy and diverse mussel populations are usually also healthy and safe for other animals – and people too. Sometimes, by restoring one key group of wildlife in the river, we can help restore the entire ecosystem.

Read other posts that explore the importance and restoration of freshwater mussels in the Northeast.

Pa. mussels help restore streams in Ill., Ohio and WV

We love freshwater mussels so much that we extended our month-long series to tell you about work to restore and protect freshwater mussels and their homes in Pennsylvania. Today you’re hearing from Lora Zimmerman, the assistant supervisor of Contaminants and Conservation Planning Assistance in our Pennsylvania office. This series highlights the importance of freshwater mussels to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

Pennsylvania is known for a lot of things—spectacular trout fishing, abundant energy resources, intensely rivaled hockey teams—but one of the lesser known treasures of Pennsylvania is its native freshwater mussels.

Species almost lost elsewhere are known from the Allegheny River and French Creek in western Pennsylvania, and they are the envy of several neighboring states where the mussels have either been lost or populations are too small to survive without assistance. For example, although it remains in only five percent of its historical range, the northern riffleshell continues to have thriving populations in Pennsylvania. Likewise, the clubshell mussel also has stronghold populations in the Commonwealth.

Clubshell mussel. Credit: USFWS

Clubshell mussel. Credit: USFWS

On a related, and potentially challenging note, a lot of Pennsylvania’s highway infrastructure is aging and in need of upgrade or replacement. So what happens when a bridge spanning a massive mussel bed with hundreds of thousands of endangered individuals needs to be replaced? This question had the Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies scratching their heads. The solution, as it turns out, may help move clubshell and northern riffleshell towards recovery.

After working with project planners and engineers to minimize potential adverse effects, the Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation determined that it was not feasible to replace the Hunter Station Bridge in Forest County, Pennsylvania, and simultaneously avoid all impacts to listed species in the project area. We started brainstorming ways to mitigate, or make up, for those impacts.

A clean river, the Allegheny bottom is rocky with stands of eelgrass. Credit: Kristen Lundh/USFWS

A clean river, the Allegheny bottom is rocky with stands of eelgrass. Credit: Kristen Lundh/USFWS

An analysis of the Allegheny populations of northern riffleshell and clubshell indicated that removal of some of the individuals living under the bridge would not result in a loss of population viability, so we put out a call to our mussel conservation partners.

As part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s formal recovery plan for northern riffleshell and clubshell, biologists have worked to reestablish healthy populations of both species within the historical ranges of the species. Doing so required addressing historical water quality issues in the Vermilion and Salt Fork River in Illinois; Big Darby Creek, Ohio; and Elk Creek, West Virginia, that are responsible for the decline or extirpation of northern riffleshell from their waters.

In addition, successful pilot studies in previous years with relocated mussels indicate that the cleanup efforts have been successful. As such, the Service found these locations ideal for transplanting some of Allegheny’s endangered mussels that may otherwise be lost due to the bridge replacement.

On August 23 this year, staff from the Columbus Zoo Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research Center, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Natural History Survey, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania Boat and Fish Commission and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources assisted with collecting and relocating mussels from the Hunter Station bridge.

Divers sort mussels collected in the Allegheny River under the Hunter Station bridge. Credit: Jim Carroll/PennDOT

Divers sort mussels collected in the Allegheny River under the Hunter Station bridge. Credit: Jim Carroll/PennDOT

All told, the collection and relocation effort moved more than a thousand mussels from Hunter Station to their new homes in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia. Although future monitoring is needed to determine the long term success of the translocation, reestablishing northern riffleshell in these states would go a long way towards accomplishing recovery goals for the species as a whole.

Translocation is not the solution for every endangered species conflict, but this project demonstrates that in some situations, it can be a successful tool for conservation and recovery.

And who knows, once the word gets out that that western Pennsylvania hosts such a unique resource, folks in Pittsburgh will demand that the Penguins be renamed something more locally appropriate (not to mention intimidating), like … the Clubshells … and then again, maybe they won’t.

More:

Clubs, riffles and rays of New York

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 Allegheny River basin holds globally significant populations of four species of mussels federally listed as endangered. They are northern riffleshell (Epioblasma torulosa rangiana), clubshell (Pleurobema clava), rayed bean (Villosa fabalis) and snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra).

Surveys in the upper Allegheny River basin in New York and Pennsylvania have found populations of these species in the past, but portions of the mainstem Allegheny River and its tributaries remain un-surveyed or have incomplete surveys — an obstacle to truly achieving recovery.

Diver looking for riffleshell and clubshell mussels. Credit: Jeremy Tiemann Il/Natural History Survey

Diver looking for riffleshell and clubshell mussels. Credit: Jeremy Tiemann Il/Natural History Survey

The Service’s New York Field Office has recovery responsibility for at least two of the mussel species; the clubshell and rayed bean. Clubshell prefers clean, loose sand and gravel found in small rivers and streams (riffles). The rayed bean also prefers this habitat but is found among aquatic vegetation. 

In the upper Allegheny basin, mussel populations are threatened by poor water quality and loss of habitat. Activities that threaten mussels and their habitat include mining and channelization of streams, erosion of streambanks, pollutants, roads, pipelines and water withdrawals. 

Conservation measures can minimize impacts to mussels and sustainable land use practices can improve mussel habitat. Examples include maintaining stream buffers and minimizing erosion and sedimentation rates by using erosion control methods during construction.  

Endangered clubshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/USFWS

Endangered clubshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/USFWS

Recovery actions include conducting presence/absence surveys to assess abundance and identifying and  prioritizing certain streams for restoration and protection.  The field office is partnering with the Western Pennsylvania Land Conservancy to conduct surveys in streams that provide suitable habitat for these species. 

The surveys will be conducted in 2013. Stay tuned!

Submitted by Sandra Doran in the Service’s New York Field Office.