Feb. 10, 2017 – The Powell River, located in northeastern Tennessee, became home to 750 new mussels last fall thanks to a restoration effort funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The mussel release was the result of partnerships between several organizations, including Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lincoln Memorial University, and the Well Being Foundation.
“Mussels act as a foundational food base for everything else in the river and can filter particles from the river,” explained Jess Jones, a restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in the college.
The mussels, which were grown at the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, include specimens from three endangered species. The mussels are raised on a diet of pond water and algae until they mature and are large enough to be released into the wild.
The event not only helped to restock the river with vital mussel species but served as an opportunity to educate local students and residents about the importance of mussels to freshwater ecosystems like the Powell River. Along with community volunteers, students from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, helped release 400 oyster mussels, 200 Cumberlandian combshell mussels, 100 snuffbox mussels, and 50 rainbow mussels.
According to fish conservation graduate student Aaron Adkins, these endangered mussels are an integral part of maintaining a healthy aquatic ecosystem like the Powell River. “Working with endangered species is like playing Jenga,” he explained. “You take out a few blocks at first and you’re fine, but you finally take out that one block and the whole thing topples.”
For Anna Dellapenta, mussel propagation and culture specialist at the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center, helping to ensure that the river’s ecosystem remains strong and healthy was a defining career moment. “The best part of working on the release was seeing the snuffbox mussels that I cared for seven days a week for well over a year settling in to their new home in the wild, where they’re meant to be. Mussel propagation can be challenging and quite demanding, but releasing them makes all of the work worth it.”