By Daniel White
Stepping gingerly across the Clinch River’s cobbled bottom, I am painfully aware of wading into inhospitable habitat for human feet. But for a freshwater mussel, this rocky shoal around Cleveland Island is one of the coziest places on Earth.
A freshwater mussel feeds by filtering out small particles. For providing us this free ecosystem service of cleaning our river water of bacteria, algae and sediment, mussels are paying a high cost. Growing evidence indicates that even a sporadic lacing of pollutants in their diet may be sufficient to hasten these beneficial creatures toward extinction.
This is the challenge facing The Nature Conservancy and partners working to keep the Clinch River system healthy for mussels and other life. It’s also been a catalyst an initiative that’s bringing together everyone from conservation groups to coal interests, researchers to regulators.
That Mussel Shoals Sound
Brad Kreps and I wade toward a murmur of human voices punctuated with metallic clangs. Kreps, who directs the Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, is explaining how the Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative heightens the stakes of a major mussel survey underway here at Cleveland Island Preserve.
Despite their endangered status and being exemplary indicator species, mussels remain conspicuously absent from key regulatory equations. Thus an important goal for the Clinch-Powell initiative is getting reliable mussel data incorporated into decision-making processes such as Clean Water Act enforcement.
“Building consensus and having solid information to support regulatory outcomes is powerful,” says Kreps. Hence the importance of the sounds emanating from the river ahead: sound science.
A small army of researchers is deployed upstream, and the first mussel counter we reach turns out to be Joe Ferraro from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. He’s unrecognizable at the moment, though, clad head to toe in a black wetsuit and sprawled facedown in the shallow water.
Ferraro combs the cobbles for every mussel occupying the space within a yellow rectangle framing his half-submerged torso. After his partner measures and records each mussel, Ferraro stands, flips the heavy metal frame three times and eases back into the river to survey the next plot within the sampling grid.
Jess Jones, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) mussel specialist who helped spearhead this survey dubbed "Musselrama,” calls our attention to one of Ferraro’s finds. “This is one of the best places anywhere for this species,” Jones says, holding up a pair of nearly identical shiny pigtoes. “Cleveland Island is one of its last strongholds.”
Take 'em to the River
In fact, the preserve is one of the few sites in Virginia where mussel populations are holding their own. The quality of the habitat, combined with the Conservancy and state owning most of the surrounding land, led FWS to select Cleveland Island for an experimental restoration project.
Over three years, one channel has been seeded with more than 8,000 juvenile oyster mussels. Last year, the other channel became home to 600 adults collected from healthy populations in Tennessee. Another 400 will be relocated within the next three years, if funding allows.
As we emerge back onto dry land, Kreps nods back toward the river and notes the impressive range of state and federal agencies and academic institutions the researchers represent. “This is what success will have to look like if we’re going to save these species and one of North America’s most remarkable rivers,” he says. “It’s going to take a huge human effort.”
Daniel White is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Making Mussels Count
The following agencies, which administer the Clean Water Act and corresponding state laws in Tennessee and Virginia, have established a formal working group to coordinate efforts to protect and restore the Clinch and Powell rivers:
Regions III and IV, U.S. EPA
Tenn Dept of Env. and Conservation
Va Dept of Conservation and Recreation Va Dept of Environmental Quality
Va Dept of Mines, Minerals, and Energy
The following partners also have assumed lead roles for the Clinch-Powell initiative:
Alpha Natural Resources
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Geologic Survey
U.S. Office of Surface Mining
Va Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries
The Nature Conservancy