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Moving mussels

Cheryl Daigle from the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

Today you’re hearing from Cheryl Daigle at the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

Working on a river restoration project that is focused on restoring 11 species of sea-run fish — including the enigmatic shortnose sturgeon and leaping wonder of salmon — offers many fascinating moments of discovery about rivers, community, and restoration of place.

Yet, I never imagined freshwater mussels would invite the depths of thought I had while helping to relocate exposed mussels to deeper habitat during the removal of the Great Works Dam and subsequent lowering of the impoundment to a natural river flow.

Holding a freshwater mussel. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Holding a freshwater mussel. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Mussels move. They leave trails in the sediment that are intriguing, leaving one to wonder where they thought they were heading and why. Was the water six feet over more palatable than the water here by my feet? Why did the mussel move closer to shore as the water levels dropped and warmed at the edge, rather than to deeper, slightly cooler water?

Mussels also squeak when maneuvered out of a tight spot in the mud or between crevices of rock, and spit at you. In spite of years of scientific training and contemplating wildlife and water for management purposes, it was at times difficult not to anthropomorphize the mussel behavior and wonder about their lack of a brain.

Looking for freshwater mussels. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Looking for freshwater mussels. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

The search to save mussels
Over several weeks, dozens of volunteers joined us along the shoreline. In part, we were supporting a team of biologists under contract to find rare mussels such as the yellow lampmussel and the tidewater mucket.

Spotting a yellow lampmussel was like finding a gold coin, and it seemed to give some volunteers more prestige among the group if they found several among the many, many thousands of the more common elliptios that lined the shore. Mostly we were there to save the elliptios – move as many as we could to deeper water habitat, not because of permitting requirements, but more simply out of respect for life, even knowing of course we could not save them all, and that changing an impoundment back to a river could only support so many mussels.

Still dedicated to looking for those mussels! Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Still dedicated to looking for those mussels! Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

It just seemed right, and it brought people together as community, doing something for the river that was tangible and could be held in the hand and not simply in the mind or on paper.

I was relieved to find I was not the only one who started talking to the mussels that I moved. Maybe it was the sun and long hours, maybe it was just that inherent desire to feel connected to other life, even that with shells (think E.O Wilson and his biophilia hypothesis). In the evening when I shut my eyes to go to sleep, I would see mussels protruding out of the sediment with siphons filtering and releasing water.

Freshwater mussel under water. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Freshwater mussel under water. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Musing on mussels
On a day after I had gone out many days, and spent more hours than planned moving mussels, because it was hard to leave, and after finding mussels that were still alive after being exposed for several days and that I thought were dead but still squeaked with an expulsion of air when I touched them, I found myself wondering about the persistence of life – the way even these shelled creatures without a brain kept clinging to survival, and what I see as a mysterious force that weaves through all living creatures, brainless or not.

Being so close to dam removal in action, my methodical and meditative search for mussels often brought thoughts of my father, who would have loved to have witnessed the changes happening at Great Works. He would have found a way to be here alongside me and our volunteers, and I can imagine his own meanderings of thought while gathering mussels into buckets or tossing them into deeper water. Before he died, he spoke about life and what it meant to be alive – he said it was like the ripple that forms when something touches upon the surface of water, it keeps spreading out, and the ripple gets smaller as it gets larger, but then at its end it might send up the slightest breath of air that touches upon a length of grass, and perhaps there is a butterfly on the tip of that grass that is then sent aloft by its movement, and it goes on and on. He said that our small actions in life are like that, sending out ripples, and you never know what might be influenced by each small act.

From mussels to my dying father to butterflies and the ripplings of life, while crouched in sediment exposed by the removal of a dam – who knew the common mussel could send one into such philosophical wanderings?

Beautiful shoreline of the Penobscot River. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

Beautiful shoreline of the Penobscot River. Credit: Cheryl Daigle/Trust

It is hard to know what moving mussels accomplished from an ecological perspective, although we will seek some answers as we monitor the relocated yellow lampmussels. But the act of mussel relocation, and that bringing together of people, made me feel a closer connection to the river and its inhabitants, and deepened my respect for the value of restoring this place and all that is meant to live here.

Follow the Trust on Facebook, and see more great photos from them on their Flickr page.

Read more from the freshwater mussel series!

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.

More information: 

Freshwater mussel conservation in western 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.

Nestled between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in western New York, the Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office is located in an incredibly unique area. Part of the reason this area is so interesting is the high number of streams with freshwater mussels.

A native freshwater mussel found in the stream during a road-crossing survey. Credit: USFWS

A native freshwater mussel found in the stream during a road-crossing survey. Credit: USFWS

Freshwater mussel populations are in decline all over the country. Pollution and habitat loss are two of the leading causes of the population decline. As the human population grows and cities spread out, more roads are built, many of which cross streams. When those road crossings are installed correctly, they cause no problems.

However, due to budget constraints and lack of training for the installers, many crossings are under-sized or incorrectly installed. This causes a major problem for fish and other critters that live in the stream. The road crossing becomes a barrier to fish migration, as well as the migration of other species, including freshwater mussels.

This culvert is a complete barrier to fish passage. Credit: USFWS

This culvert is a complete barrier to fish passage. Credit: USFWS

To the untrained eye, mussels might just look like rocks on the bottom of the stream, but when you know a little bit about their lives and what they do, they are incredible! Freshwater mussels do some of the coolest things in order to reproduce.

Some of them actually make their mantle (the fleshy lining inside their shell) look like a small fish to lure larger fish to them. Why do they do that? So that the little baby mussels, known as glochidia, can attach to the host fish to grow. As the mussels grow, the host fish carries them to new parts of the stream where they drop off and establish new populations.

Of course, if there is a barrier to fish migration, the baby mussels don’t make it very far. And that’s if they get anywhere at all. The barrier might mean that there are no host fish in certain sections of the stream. If there aren’t any host fish, the baby mussels don’t survive.

For the past two years, fish biologists Raymond Li, Marie Schrecengost, and Chris Castiglione and several fish technicians (Karolyn Lock, Jerry Krajna, Elizabeth Migliore, and Tracy Wilcox) at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office have been working with Amy Mahar and Jenny Landry from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to find the streams in the Lake Ontario watershed where freshwater mussels are present and then find the barriers on those streams. 

Elizabeth Migliore, Karolyn Lock and Tracy Wilcox take a break from mussel hunting in the stream. Credit: USFWS

Elizabeth Migliore, Karolyn Lock and Tracy Wilcox take a break from mussel hunting in the stream. Credit: USFWS

During the course of this work, the group found 22 different types of freshwater mussels and surveyed 29 streams for road crossing barriers.

A little more than 35 percent of the road crossings caused some kind of barrier for fish. The surveys have resulted in more than a thousand points on a map, but we will have the locations prioritized soon.

Then, we will be able to start fixing the road crossings that create barriers. 

The Service and community partners opened more than 2,180 miles of streams to native fish and mussel populations in 2011 by removing or bypassing 158 dams, culverts and other structures. Read more in the 2011 National Fish Passage Program annual report.

More resources: 

Submitted by Marie Schrecengost, a fisheries biologist at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.