As one of the greatest hotspots for biodiversity in North America, the Clinch River in southwestern Virginia has more species of endangered and rare freshwater mussels than anywhere else in the world. This river is home to more than 120 species of fish and about 43 species of freshwater mussels, which are the most endangered group of animals in the United States.
Mussels can live over 70 years and are vital to stream health because they filter out suspended particles and pollutants from the water. They also convert organic matter into food for bottom-feeding insects, worms and crayfish. Mussels also increase oxygen levels in the streambed helping it remain productive and healthy.
In the past 30 years, as the Clinch River and its tributaries have become increasingly degraded by sedimentation and pollutants, 18 species of mussels in the river have significantly declined and are now listed as federally endangered including the dromedary pearlymussel, combshell, oyster mussel and cracking pearlymussel.
A partnership of Virginia Tech, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to restore mussel populations by raising them in mussel hatcheries. Eight to 10 species of endangered mussels are propagated each year. When they reach about one-and-a-half years old, they are returned to streams where water quality and habitat have been improved.
Click here to view the complete story about Clinch River's mussel population in the Healthy Waters book.