Once endangered Virginia mussel species are traced back to the James River


Fifty years ago, a unique creature – known as the James spinymussel – lived thousands in James Riverwhich stretches for more than 300 miles from the Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains.

But pollution and wastewater have nearly wiped out the species, leading wildlife experts to grow mussels in a hatchery outside Richmond for more than a decade. A few months ago, they successfully reintroduced more than 2,000 mussels into the Virginia River that had long been their home.

“We’re only scratching the surface to recover the populations we’ve lost, but we think James mussels can make it up and do it well,” said Brian Watson, an aquatic resource biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. He helped lead the spinmussel works on the James River.

Work to promote mussels in the James River is done in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

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James spinimloss is one of about 80 species of freshwater mussels in Virginia, and experts say they’re an important part of maintaining healthy streams and rivers in the area. mussels filters Up to 15 gallons of water per day and works just like a refrigerator’s water filter, Watson said, helping to prevent pollutants such as nitrogen from flowing into waterways.

It is an essential function, Watson said, that has earned mussels the nickname “river livers”.

Spinymeel got what’s real Named because some have a pointed spike—sometimes two or three sticking out of their casing—Watson believes it is thought to help them “maintain their position at the bottom of the stream”.

if there was Mussels in a freshwater riverHe said this is a sign that the water quality is safe to drink, swim and fish from. Mussels help the ecosystem in other ways, too: Their beds make a good habitat for insects, as well as mussels. Food source for muskrat and otters.

Mussels were listed as an endangered species in Virginia in the late 1980s. Conservation efforts for them began in the next decade, as scientists tracked where their populations had declined and which had been hit hardest. They found that mussels were abundant in the James River in the 1950s but had declined by the mid-to-late 1960s, although some have been found in the river’s tributaries.

“We’d struggle to find five in an area where there were likely hundreds or even thousands,” Watson said.

Mussels are difficult to reproduce. They are parasites, so they have to get their nutrients from the fish’s blood in order to become baby mussels. But catching a fish is not an easy task, especially for mussels that do not swim with feet or fins.

To get a fish, mussels basically spit their larvae into the water, and fish—mistaking them for a worm—often get close to them. The larvae then attach themselves to the fish’s gills, where they attract nutrients and grow and develop, remaining attached to the fish’s gills for several weeks.

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Eventually, the mussel grows enough on its own that it falls off and scientists hope it becomes part of the adult population and reproduces. Spinymusssels have an average lifespan of around 20 years.

“They’re like a caterpillar in a way that evolves into a butterfly,” said Watson. “If the larvae don’t hit the fish, they just die.”

To help increase spinymuscle populations in the James River, experts took some adult females from the water and recreated their life cycles in a hatchery. Once the female produces larvae, which can number thousands in one cycle, those larvae are placed in a tank with fish and observed to see if they stick to the fish’s gills. It took nearly two years for the mussels to mature enough when they were young to be placed in the river.

In summer and fall, experts dove and carefully place mussels harvested in the hatchery at six locations along the river bed. Each mussel was tagged with a marker so that the researchers could monitor and track their survival and reproduction.

Scientists said they eventually want to create at least 10 self-sustaining pools in the James River and its surrounding tributaries.

Freshwater mussels like the spinimare are important to the bay’s ecosystem and have been in a “vulnerable state for a very long time,” said Joe Wood, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Wood said the work to reintroduce James River mussels represents “a level of progress and hope that they will survive and thrive.”

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