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Massive freshwater mussel die-off is ecological mystery

The Clinch River in far Southwest Virginia flows at the feet of the southern Appalachian Mountains, slowly descending towards Tennessee. Its upper reaches are pristine, clear and cold,

The Clinch River winds 300 miles through Appalachia, and is home to 133 species of fish and is one of the most important rivers for freshwater mussels in the world, with 56 different species — more than in all of Europe, according to the Associated Press.

“I always try to get people to call this area a temperate Amazon, because the biodiversity here really is off the charts,” biologist Jordan Richard, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Abingdon, Virginia.

The Clinch River from U.S. Highway 23/58/421 at Speers Ferry in Scott County  Virginia.

The Clinch River from U.S. Highway 23/58/421 at Speers Ferry in Scott County, Virginia.

Since 2016, though, the Clinch River has seen 10 of its 56 species of mussels have gone extinct with another 20 species now considered endangered – like the fluted kidneyshell, snuffbox, birdwing pearly mussel, and the shiny pigtoe.

The pheasantshell mussel, once one of the Clinch’s most abundant mussel species, has plummeted by more than 90 percent, from a population estimated to be 94,000 in 2015 to less than 14,000 today. The rest of the various mussel populations have dropped 30 percent, leaving the Clinch River with the highest concentration of endangered aquatic species on the continent,

Die-off is not an isolated problem
The Clinch River mussel die-off is not an isolated incident. Throughout the U.. and Europe, staggering numbers of freshwater mussels are dying off. There have been attempts to figure out the cause, and everything from infectious diseases and climate change to water pollution has been explored.

Freshwater mussels live on the stream bottom  where they can use their single foot to slowly move ab...

Freshwater mussels live on the stream bottom, where they can use their single foot to slowly move about.

Filter feeders, they open their shell slightly, bring water in from the river, filter it to get their food, then return clean water to the stream.

Gary Peeples/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

To be more precise, 26 European countries have reported up to 90 percent declines in various mussel populations, particularly the freshwater pearl mussel. And they too, have looked at all the obvious clues, including dams, declines in host fish and invasive species.

University of Wisconsin epidemiologist Tony Goldberg is a specialist in wildlife diseases of unknown cause. “Along with invasive species, we’re seeing invasive pathogens,” Goldberg said. “Often it’s the coup de grace for a species that is holding on by a thread.”

Freshwater mussels are extremely important to a river’s ecosystem and overall health. Goldberg puts mussels’ importance more bluntly. Without them, he says, “the freshwater ecosystem will change forever.”

Richard and other scientists point out that mussels are not high up on anyone’s list of endangered species, like elephants or tigers. But perhaps if people are educated in the importance of the freshwater mussel – perhaps they would change their minds.

In 2012  the USFWS  volunteers  and Virginia Tech students Lincoln Memorial University  and several ...

In 2012, the USFWS, volunteers, and Virginia Tech students Lincoln Memorial University, and several other partners released 5,000 endangered mussels into the Tennessee stretch of the Powell River.
Gary Peeples/USFWS

Freshwater mussels are not edible because they are touch and taste bad – but they are nature’s water filters. Mussels are crucial to their ecosystems, both by cleaning water of impurities and creating shelter for other species via their shells are no longer in use. Keep in mind that many mussels have decades-long lifespans.

Additionally, research has shown mussels can remove pharmaceuticals from the water and pesticides and flame retardants. And they also remove E. coli from the water.

And there is a good reason why people should care. As these natural water filters die-off, we will be left with cloudy, dirty rivers and streams. Future generations will be deprived of earlier generations took for granted.

Emilie Blevins is studying the die-off of western pearlshell mussels in her role as a biologist with the Xeres Society for Invertebrate Conservation. She says, “A big part of all of our work is … spotlighting how important they are because if we don’t value them, they’re not going to be around.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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