Va.’s freshwater mussels are vanishing. Can a state plan save them?

Oysters have long gotten the spotlight. Now it may be the mussels’ turn.
Freshwater mussels from the Clinch River.
Freshwater mussels from the Clinch River.(Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Nov. 15, 2021 at 8:03 AM EST
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SYCAMORE ISLAND, SCOTT COUNTY — In the last rocky shoals of the Clinch River, before it crosses the invisible line separating Virginia from Tennessee, female mussels are biding their time.

They are waiting for fish, and they will stop at nothing to entice them. The birdwing pearly mussel will deploy her mantle so that it looks just like a snail relished by the greenside darter. The Cumberlandian comb shell will extend hers to mimic the larvae of insects perched on her shell. The cracking pearly mussel will scatter packets resembling egg sacs on the river floor.

All of this subterfuge has one aim: to spread their offspring. Those fish that seize the lures in their jaws, hoping for a tasty treat, will be left empty-mouthed in a cloud of mussel larvae. The disappointed fish will then become the mussels’ unwitting nursemaids, carrying the larvae in their gills until the juveniles have grown large enough to drop back to the concealment of the stony river floor.

For millennia, this strategy of trickery served freshwater mussels in the U.S. well, and nowhere did they thrive more than in the Southeast. Of the almost 300 different species of freshwater mussels scientists have identified in North America, an estimated 90 percent call the Southeast home. More than 100 are found in the Tennessee River system that Virginia’s Clinch, Powell and Holston rivers feed. Altogether, roughly 80 species pepper Virginia’s waterways from the southwestern tip to the Atlantic slope.

“Here,” a mussel is “in its Eden,” said restoration coordinator Tim Lane of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, standing knee-deep in the Clinch one August morning.

For most of Virginia’s freshwater mussels, though, that Eden is slipping away. According to the Department of Wildlife Resources, only 30 percent of the state’s freshwater mussels are considered stable. In the state’s portion of the Tennessee River system, a staggering 31 mussel species are designated by Virginia or the federal government as endangered or threatened; in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where freshwater mussels have received far less attention, six species bear those designations. “In many areas, mussel densities are so low that the eggs of females go unfertilized,” found a 2010 restoration strategy for the Upper Tennessee River basin.

Still, other species have been lost entirely: this September, decades after its last sighting in the Clinch, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the green-blossom pearly mussel from the endangered list due to extinction.


.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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