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Endangered spiny mussels hitch rides

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  • Endangered spiny mussels hitch rides

    The spinymussel clings on for life

    Biologists say a stream in Bath County may be critical to the survival of the species.

    Roanoke Times

    By Mason Adams
    Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis
    Melanie Stine, of the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (left) and Rachel Mair of the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery hold the seine as Matthew Patterson, also of the White Sulphur Springs office, tries to encourage fish to head downstream into the net in Mill Creek.
    A James spinymussel, native to the waters of Virginia.
    Children peer into a tank of fish caught along Mill Creek. Endangered James spinymussels are being reintroduced to other streams in Virginia by attaching themselves to fish like these.

    HOTCHKISS -- On a misty Saturday morning alongside Mill Creek, responsible adults stood before a group of inquisitive, wide-eyed children and extolled the benefits of hitchhiking.
    Then they showed them how it's done.
    The freeloaders in question, however, were not looking for a ride from a passing truck but instead from a chub, dace or shiner. And for the endangered species known as the James spinymussel, hitching a lift on a fish is not a question of convenience but a matter of life and death.
    Mussels are invertebrates with hinged shells, much like clams and oysters. The James spinymussel is one of 37 threatened or endangered mussel species in Virginia, and is found only in the upper James River and Dan River basins.
    The James spinymussel population in Mill Creek, a small stream in Bath County, is one of only two healthy populations in the entire James River watershed, according to Brian Watson, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. That, he said, makes the Mill Creek location ideal for an educational demonstration of how biologists are trying to reintroduce the mussel to other streams.
    Children of nearby landowners and other interested residents gathered at Camp Accovac to watch as biologists with the game department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services walked down the creek, using a large net to catch fish along the way. The fish were sorted by species. Those that the mussel prefers -- chub, dace and shiners -- were put into a small tank.
    The onlookers then watched as mussel larvae, known as glochidia, were dropped into the tank with the fish.
    "These larvae look like little white worms," said Rachel Mair, a USFWS fisheries biologist. "The fish see them and think they're food and bite them."
    The mussels then attach to the fish, which become a sort of mobile home as the mussels mature. They eventually grow out of the larval stage and become juveniles. At that point, the mussels drop from the fish and begin a new stage of life on the stream bed.
    There are a number of ideas on the best way to reintroduce the James spinymussel. One is to introduce them to fish and then let the fish swim back into the streams, as happened Saturday during the demonstration.
    Another is to hold the fish until the mussels drop off as juveniles. That's the approach generally utilized by Dick Neves, a fisheries professor at Virginia Tech.

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  • #2
    Part 2

    Neves and Mair both operate mussel propagation facilities. Neves' Virginia Tech facility produces about a quarter of a million mussels per year. Meanwhile, the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia, where Mair works, provides mussels for reintroductions all over the East Coast. A third hatchery in Marion also produces mussels.
    But reintroduction programs can do only so much. The biologists at Mill Creek said it's important to educate the younger generation about endangered organisms such as the James spinymussel and their role in the world.
    Neves, for example, helped write "Russell the Mussel," a 20-page illustrated children's book in which a "very dignified rabbitsfoot mussel" teaches a young girl about the life of a freshwater stream.
    "We wanted to allow grade-school kids the opportunity to read about animals that live in their local streams," Neves said.
    Copies of "Russell the Mussel" were available at Saturday's demonstration, along with opportunities to make fish prints and mussel magnets.
    While the children waited for the mussels to attach to the fish, they did the sort of things that make for a memorable streamside day: They petted two large fallfish that had been left in the cooler, even as grandparents warned them to avoid the catfish and its spines. They tried to identify a crayfish by comparing it to a poster that Watson recently put together. They splashed water at one another and looked up drainpipes.
    Nora Pichette, 7, excitedly appeared with a worm, which she dropped into the cooler near a fallfish. She and her younger siblings, Gabriella and Michael, waited to see what would happen before they eventually lost interest and started petting the fish again.
    Eventually, the biologists determined that enough time had passed for the mussels to attach.
    Followed by a parade of children, parents and grandparents, they carried the coolers to the stream banks, then let the kids scoop out the fish and return them to Mill Creek.
    "I think anytime you can get the kids out with their parents and talk about conservation, and introduce some of these issues, it's a good day," Watson said.

    How to hand-knot pearls without a tool

    My avatar is a Sea of Cortez mabe pearl. One of a pair of Mexican handmade earrings.