Building Stong Mussels on the Nottoway

21 Nov
November 21, 2011

FRANKLIN –Written by Rex Springston Richmond times Dispatch. 2nd article written by Dale Liesch of the Tidewater News
This is the mussel mission I participated with on the Nottoway. We used the Blackwater Nottoway Riverkeeper pontoon boat as a diving platform and media center.

Link To Video

Three divers plunged into the swampy Nottoway River in an unusual effort to save a bunch of little creatures in that black lagoon. All scientists, they were trying to reverse the decline of drab-looking but ecologically important freshwater mussels.

Most people never give mussels a thought. But just as oysters help cleanse the Chesapeake Bay, their relatives the mussels filter pollution from streams and tell us if those waters are clean or dirty.

In return, we send them pollution that poisons them and erosion that smothers them. Three-quarters of Virginia’s mussel species are imperiled.

The scientists on the cypress-lined Nottoway released nearly 9,000 young, hatchery-raised mussels last week just south of Franklin. And they dove to find female mussels from which to make more youngsters.

The underwater work was hard and potentially dangerous. The Nottoway is a so-called black-water river, its slow waters darkened by rotting plants.

“I’m a chicken,” said Brett Flower, bobbing in her black wetsuit in the 55-degree water after pulling up mussels in a mesh bag. “This is scary.”

Flower, a biologist assistant with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, had dived about 12 feet. Even with a strong light, she could see just 12 to 18 inches along the bottom. A fish or something passed inches from her face, but she couldn’t make it out. And, “I freak out if I hit a tree or something.”

The river also harbors a healthy population of venomous eastern cottonmouths, or water moccasins.

“They are probably still out, on a warm day like this” in the 70s, said J.D. Kleopfer, a game department reptile expert driving one of the group’s three boats. “They’re pretty harmless. They will probably just swim on by and keep cruising.”

For more than a decade, mussel conservation in the state centered on endangered species in the clear, shallow streams of Southwest Virginia.

But in recent years, experts have begun focusing also on the deeper, wider waters of central and eastern Virginia. For now, that work is primarily in the Nottoway, about 95 miles southeast of Richmond, where most mussels are declining but not yet endangered.

“We are trying to catch them now before they get to that state,” said Brian Watson, a game department mussel expert. “The strategy is to try to keep common things common.”

Then Watson went back to sorting his catch of brownish walnut- to soap-bar-size mussels on the deck of a pontoon boat. It was a good day to work. Many trees still sported fall colors, and a bald eagle even flapped by.

* * * * *

People once paid a lot of attention to mussels. Their shells are lined with an iridescent mother of pearl, and North American collectors took mussels by the ton to make buttons before the advent of plastic.

Indians ate mussels and used them to make tools and jewelry. Otters and raccoons eat them now.

An earlier fascination with mussels is revealed in their colorful names, including the Tennessee heel-splitter, Tidewater mucket, the snuffbox and Appalachian monkey-face.

Mussels feed by filtering algae and other matter from water. If a river has a lot of mussels, that’s a good sign the water is safe for swimming and fishing.

Pollution, dams, poor farming practices and other threats have devastated many mussels. About three-quarters of mussels are in decline in this country, including 62 of Virginia’s 81 species, Watson said.

“Mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals in the United States,” Watson said, “way more so than birds, way more so than mammals.”

Scientists at Virginia Tech and other institutions developed methods over the past decade or more for raising mussels in hatcheries and returning them to the wild. In this state, those efforts have been aimed mainly at the rare mussels of Southwest Virginia.

About five years ago, Virginia’s game department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up to help the struggling but less-heralded mussels in the eastern two-thirds of the state.

“They are the red-headed stepchild of the mussel fauna,” Watson said.

That eastern mussel work costs about $100,000 to $150,000 a year, in state and federal money and donations, he said.

The plan is to move over the next few years beyond the Nottoway River to the James in the Richmond area, the York and the Rappahannock.

* * * * *

For a drab little animal, a mussel lives a life of adventure. It can push out its fleshy foot and travel hundreds of yards underwater. A flood can wash it miles downriver, where it can inhabit new territory. For a population to thrive, mussels also need to move miles upriver.

But how?

When a mother mussel spits out its microscopic babies, or larvae, the youngsters of most species attach to fish. The babies hitch rides upstream, and drop off.

To lure a fish, some mother mussels extend a fleshy lure that resembles a minnow or worm. Some mussels open their shells slightly, and when a fish pokes its head in to look for food, the mussel clamps down like a Venus flytrap, holding on until baby mussels latch onto the fish.

“Most folks would never guess that this thing that looks like a living rock basically is that complex in its life cycle,” Watson said.

To raise eastern mussels, state and federal officials established a propagation center in 2007 at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery in Charles City County.

A visit to the center the day before the Nottoway trip found a half-dozen workers Super Gluing tiny plastic identification tags on thimble-sized mussels that were ready for release.

“The key is to not glue your fingers together,” said Scott Smith, a game department biologist.

* * * * *

After the diving, scientists on two boats tossed hatchery-raised mussels into the Nottoway. The scene resembled people on parade floats throwing candy.

On future trips, divers will look for the tagged mussels to see if they are thriving.

For all their attributes, freshwater mussels have one major failing — they taste like rubbery mud.

Jeff Turner, the riverkeeper, or public advocate, for the Nottoway and Blackwater rivers, once boiled mussels in beer but couldn’t get one down.

“I’ve eaten about everything that flies, swims or crawls,” Turner said, “but this was one of the worst.”

Tidewater News atricle:

FRANKLIN—The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recently released nearly 9,000 hatchery-grown freshwater mussels into the Nottoway River.

Brian Watson, a malacologist with the department, said most varieties of freshwater mussels are imperiled and this tactic is to help preserve the species before they become endangered or extinct.

The Nottoway was chosen because of the diversity of mussels found here.

“The Nottoway has 25 species, which is the greatest diversity (of freshwater mussels) outside of western Virginia,” he said.

Divers from the state department as well as members of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife tagged and released the mussels near the U.S. 258 boat ramp south of Franklin. The group also took female mussels to the Harrison Lake hatchery in Charles City to propagate more young, said Blackwater/Nottoway Riverkeeper Jeff Turner.

“It’s like a preventative healthcare kind of thing,” Turner said. “They want to make sure it doesn’t get bad. I think it’s a test too to see how well it works.”

Watson said the project is important because mussels are a sign of a healthy water system because they filter the water as they feed.

“They can filter up to a gallon of water an hour,” Watson said. “They provide a filtering service by taking pollutants out of the water. Water quality goes a long way when talking about human health.”

Watson said the department plans on making return trips to the Nottoway to release more mussels into the local water system. In fact they’ve already released more than 10,000 mussels this year and still have 2,000 to 3,000 more in Charles City waiting to mature in order to be released here.

A return trip to the Nottoway is planned on Dec. 16. The department will release more in the spring and summer.

“It’s a continuous process,” Watson said.

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