Stabilizing Threatened Species

Dec 30, 2013

December 2013 marked the 40th Birthday of the US Endangered Species Act …and in the decades since, many people have been working to get threatened species off the endangered list.

Scientists at Virginia Tech are making progress with a key species that helps keep area waterways alive and healthy.

Fresh Water mussels are different from the seafood variety most people are familiar with. For one thing, we don’t eat them today, although there is evidence First Nation people regularly feasted on them long ago.  But by the middle of the last century, industrial pollution threatened to eliminate the small mollusks from inland waterways, affecting   water quality and species up the food chain.

Remote regions in south western Virginia and the Tennessee Valley were less affected by development and industry and that meant enough mussels survived here to serve as feed stock for a decades long project to bring them back;  a direct result of the Endangered species act of 1973 and measures like it.

“In my opinion we’re just now beginning to see the fruits of those laws,” says Jess Jones, who runs the freshwater mollusk conversation hatcheries at Virginia Tech, where he raises baby mussels to be placed in area waterways.

“I’ve been doing this now for 20 years and I’ve seen improvements not only in water quality, we have data to showing water clarity has improved, but we also have data to show that in some instances, mussels and fish populations have also improved in these streams.” 

Jones, who has a joint appointment at the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia Tech say the goal is to some day get the mollusks off the endangered list. They’re not there yet, but the freshwater mussels preservation project has been so successful that scientists are now collaborating with their Chinese counterparts to help them regenerate the shellfish, which have suffered in China’s own industrial revolution.

Later this week, Robbie will take us along on a visit to the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center at Virginia Tech, which is a cross between a nursery and a fishing camp.