New Effort Underway to Increase Native Mussel Populations in Virginia and Tennessee’s Powell River

First batch of mussels released with help of Lincoln Memorial University students.

ABINGDON, VA | October 20, 2016

A new $100K restoration effort to increase populations of native freshwater mussels in the Powell River system is now officially underway following the first mussel release, which took place on October 6.  The program is being led by The Nature Conservancy and funded by The Tennessee Valley Authority, with additional assistance provided by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia Tech University.

Freshwater mussels play a vital role in filtering and cleaning rivers, but their numbers have been greatly depleted in the past several decades due to stress caused by a combination of pollutants.   The Clinch-Powell river system in Virginia and Tennessee contains one of the nation’s highest concentrations of mussel species, including 20 federally listed rare species.

“Though many people might first think of fish or waterfowl when it comes to species that depend on healthy streams and rivers, freshwater mussels are actually a leading indicator of water quality and they play an essential role in keeping our waterways clean for people and nature,” said Brad Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program. “We’re thrilled to be teaming up with the Tennessee Valley Authority and so many other dedicated partners to increase the number of mussels in the Powell River.”

This project seeks to augment mussel numbers by releasing juveniles into sections of river with good water quality and habitat.  Before being released to the river, the juveniles are raised in Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, VA and the VDGIF’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, VA.

“This is a great example of how agencies and organizations can work together to positively impact the future of rare mussels and ensure the health of the river system continues to improve for future generations,” says Shannon O’Quinn, senior water resource specialist for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The first release of juvenile mussels into the Powell River took place Friday, Oct. 6 at the Well Being Conference Center in Tazewell, TN.  Biology students from nearby Lincoln Memorial University assisted organization and agency partners in placing four different species of mussels in the water, including the federally endangered Cumberland combshell, snuffbox, and rainbow mussels. 

“Students learning and working in the area of conservation biology often only get to read about or see pictures of endangered species, so it was something special for them to take part in the mussel release in the Powell River,” said Dr. Aggy Vanderpool, Associate Professor of Biology at Lincoln Memorial University. “The release gave them the opportunity to hold an endangered species in their hands and to place that species back into the river to help rebuild an ecosystem.  It’s an experience you just can’t get from books.”

Over the next year, the partners will carefully raise approximately 2,300 additional juveniles to be released into the Powell in late 2017.

Other partners in attendance at the first mussel release include the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, the Clinch-Powell RC&D, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the University of Tennessee Extension Service.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Matt Kane
The Nature Conservancy
(240) 630-7052