Students help restore mussels to East Tennessee river

2:12 PM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
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A collaborative effort is underway to restore the health of the Powell River and save endangered species.

Sara Collins is one of the Lincoln Memorial University students who helped map the Powell River to find the best spots to release thousands of mussels.

"I'm hoping with this we bring back some of the mussels that used to be here and that they can thrive and make the river better," Sara Collins said.

They arrived from Virginia, traveling by cooler to LMU's Powell River Aquatic Research Station in Claiborne County.

The year old mussels were born and raised in a lab at Virginia Tech then tagged so they can be monitored.

"They need to survive well and grow well in the river. And we can document that through monitoring. And then they also have to be reproducing on their own. So we have to see their young, their progeny, showing up at the sites," Jess Jones said.

U.S. Fish And Wildlife Restoration Biologist Jess Jones lead students and researchers into the Powell River.

Pollution has decimated the mussel population. In fact, 13 mussel species in the river are listed as federally endangered.

"They get their primary nutrition from bacteria," Don Hubbs said.

TWRA Mussel Specialist Don Hubbs explained fresh water mussels filter water which improves the river habitat.

"Some of these mussels can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day and they do this all day every day," Hubbs said.

Placing the mussels is critical. 

"Some of these mussels live 80 to 100 years and spend that entire life span in that one place in the river," Hubbs said.

So students from Virginia Tech and LMU carefully placed some and gently toss others. They landed in the spots where they will spend their lives.

"Growing and raising fresh water mussels is like growing and raising timber or trees. It's a very long process," Hubbs said.

They'll monitor the mussel population for years. It will take decades before they really know if the effort is successful.

"It will probably take us maybe 20 years to fully document that the population is truly self-sustaining but we'll have milestones along the way," Jones said.

Sara Collins said, "They're going to be out here again next year doing the same thing. We're part of something that's not just going to be a one time deal. It's something that's going to be around for generations."

Future generations may enjoy a cleaner Powell River where endangered mussels may one day thrive.

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