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Restoring Mussels A Priority at Aquatic Biodiversity Center

By DAVID RAINER

Exploring streams and creeks as a youth, my discoveries included plenty of species that I didn’t really understand. Why was the bottom lined with mussels except to provide meals for the raccoons, muskrats and otters?

 For the most part, that lack of understanding is common today among mainstream America. That fact highlights the importance of work being done at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, which celebrated its grand opening last week near Marion.

Like most people, I had very limited knowledge that mussels, snails and other mollusks are the keys to water quality in our rivers and streams and that one large mussel can filter a gallon of water per hour, 24 hours per day. When you have a thriving mollusk population, you can understand the implications.

However, pollution and flow alterations have caused many species to decline to the point of being listed as an imperiled or endangered species.

With Paul Johnson at the helm, the center is working to identify, retrieve, culture and restock as many threatened species as possible to Alabama’s waterways.

The 36-acre facility was abandoned by the U.S. Geological survey and deeded to Alabama in 1999. Barnett Lawley, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Stan Cook, Chief of the Fisheries Section of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, toured the facility seven years ago to try to see if it could be put to good use.

“This was a project that was destined to be successful,” Lawley said at the grand opening. “After looking at the site, I thought that is a great asset to have and not be able to utilize it. I had a flashback – at my age it’s a flashback and not a good memory – of the 10th grade biology class that mussels and snails were nature’s filters and that was the way the Lord intended for the water to be kept clean.

“I asked Stan if it was possible for us to raise mussels and snails in the amounts necessary to stock the rivers, streams and estuaries around the state to have a clean water initiative.”

Lawley and Cook recruited Paul Johnson, who was at the Tennessee Aquarium at the time. Within a year, Johnson was in charge of the Aquatic Biodiversity Center.

“I can’t say enough about what Stan Cook, Nick Nichols and you have done,” Lawley told Johnson. “This started with and idea and has grown to what it is today – a working project. Every time I talk about this, people get excited. This is not just a state initiative; it’s a state-wide initiative and counties and cities, private groups and corporations need to be a part of this. I want to thank all the groups that have helped because it takes money to do this. This is going to help.”

Linda Kelsey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Alabama has 306 fish species 155 mussels and 160 snail species. That equates to three-quarters of the fauna that lives in North America.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 14 hatcheries around the Southeast, 70 across the country,” Kelsey said. “We’ve been looking hard at our fish hatcheries and how we can modify them to take on propagation of imperiled aquatic species, recognizing this need.

“The Southeast is blessed with a tremendous biodiversity of aquatic species and wildlife, but we’ve also been tasked with some of its greatest challenges. No one knows this more than the state of Alabama. The Mobile and Tennessee River basins have the highest freshwater diversity of any region in North America. So you have a tremendous resource here that needs to be protected and I applaud the state of Alabama for conservation of these species, and this state-of-the-art facility is a testament to that.”

Cook said that when the Alabama Game and Fish Division changed its name about a decade ago it was done with aforethought.

“We made the decision to rename our agency to the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries,” Cook said. “We did that to get away from the concept that we’re just a ‘hook and bullet’ crowd. We wanted to diversify in our name who we are. This facility demonstrates that we are concerned about all wild things that grow, crawl and swim in our waters.”

The biodiversity center staff identifies threatened and endangered species, collects the mollusks and then goes through an arduous process of propagating the species in numbers sufficient to warrant restocking efforts.

“We hand collect the animals,” Johnson said. “We live and die by our knowledge of where these rare Andrew Henderson and Todd Fobianspecies are. When you’re trying to culture them, you have a narrow window. There are only a couple of weeks a year when you can actually collect the females for the restoration. That’s usually in the spring when the rivers are higher. So you have to do all your ground work beforehand to know the precise localities to examine for brood stock for that species. Sometimes it literally is only one or two sites that we can reliably collect these really rare animals for the recovery work.

“For mussels, we work them to extract the larvae and put them on the host fish. In three or four weeks they fall off as a juvenile mussel. There is an intense culture period that is the second most difficult part of the process – culturing them from a quarter of a millimeter to a three-to four-millimeter size range. That’s where we have the most difficulty. Once they get about a four-millimeter size, we can use other culture methods to grow them to a larger size before release.”

Johnson said the bulk of the work now is in the basins of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers and the Mobile Basin. Future work will include the Gulf Coast fauna.

The main efforts right now are in the Paint Rock River, Cahaba River, flow restoration areas in Elk River and Bear Creek areas off the Tennessee River. The flow restoration on the Weiss Bypass on the Coosa River will also be included when that project is initiated.

 “We completed releases in Choccolocco Creek and the Paint Rock,” Johnson said. “And one species is one of the rarest in the nation – the Alabama Lamp Mussel. It’s left in about eight miles of the Estill Fork of the upper Paint Rock. We’ve raised 2,000 of them from a half-inch to an inch-and-a-half.”

Johnson said that although species restoration is the first priority, watersheds will reap the benefits because of improved habitats in the drainages.

“Ultimately, we hope that this is an effort to recognize the values of the rivers, the values of the rivers as they’re meant to function,” he said. “Mussels are the key biodiversity components in our rivers. At one time, a square yard of river bottom had 80 to 300 individuals. Now we’re down to peanuts.”

Johnson said one of his favorite stories is about Timothy A. Conrad, a scientist who traveled Alabama in the early 1800s, who described many of the species that live in the state. One of the mussels Conrad described came from the Warrior River at Tuscaloosa. He captured the mussel by sawing a tree branch and dropping it down in 8 feet of water because he could see the mussel’s siphon. He stuck the tree branch in the siphon and the mussel closed up and he pulled it out of the bottom.

“He could see it at 8 feet,” Johnson said. “Most of these rivers had a water clarity of 20 feet or more. But it’s a forgotten thing because nobody has seen normal.

“Going forward, we really want to use these animals to promote watershed conservation and restoration within the state. The idea is to promote this to help solve several regulatory problems at one time, whether water quality or biodiversity. However, the program has the added benefit of helping to ensure public water supplies for communities that depend on those rivers.”

PHOTO:  (By Billy Pope; mussel photo by Thomas Tarpley).Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division biologists Todd Fobian, right, and Andrew Henderson show the equipment used in the ponds at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center near Marion to raise rare and endangered mussels, like the Alabama Lamp mussel (top photo)

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