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Bay lawmakers request $2M for freshwater mussel restoration

A hand holds several small bivalves
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A person holds freshwater mussels at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery in Charles City, Va., in 2021.

As Virginia's state malacologist said, “You cannot come close to addressing the needs with two biologists.”

A group of Virginia lawmakers on the Chesapeake Bay Commission are asking the commonwealth to set aside $2 million to keep freshwater mussel restoration efforts going.

The ask comes as one species, the green floater, is being considered for federal protection in seven states where it could soon become endangered.

The $2 million would be used to expand operations at the Virginia Fisheries and Aquatic Wildlife Center at Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, which is co-managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

In a letter to state Secretary of Natural Resources Travis Voyles, state Sen. Lynwood Lewis wrote that the investment “would correspond to an additional [500,000] mussels per year, which equates to 2.7 billion gallons of filtered water every year.” Lewis, a Democrat whose current district is directly impacted by this, is vice-chair of the commission.

The green floater and other freshwater mussel species are favorites of clean water advocates, thanks to their ability to filter nitrogen out of large amounts of water. Nitrogen, when present in large quantities from waste or agricultural runoff, can lead to algae blooms that choke out other forms of aquatic life.

Mussels also serve as indicators of river health, according to the federal FWS press release — “at-risk mussel populations are a signal of problems that may also impact fish, wildlife and people.”

But a wide variety of mussel species are struggling in their native habitats. According to Rachel Mair, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and hatchery manager at Harrison Lake, the green floater has a relatively short lifespan of three to four years — others can live for several decades in good conditions. It also sports a thin shell, making it particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and habitat.

“They like depositional areas of the river and if the river changes or you get high flows, they can wash these animals out and displace them,” Mair said.

Not all of the reasons for the green floaters’ struggles are known, but it’s suspected that warming waters and shorelines near development or without vegetated buffers are big contributors. A recent study from the Chesapeake Bay Program, Chesapeake Conservancy, U.S. Geological Survey and University of Vermont found that impervious cover in the bay watershed (which increases harmful impacts of runoff) increased by 79.1 square miles between 2013 and 2018.

In the same time frame, the watershed saw a net loss of about 25 square miles of tree cover.

Aside from the struggles of green floaters and other mussel species, state biologists have limited access to resources. According to Brian Watson, officially titled the state malacologist (mollusk scientist) at DWR, Virginia doesn't have enough biologists to meet needs.

“Where North Carolina has ten biologists that have mussels as part of their workload, Virginia only has two biologists,” Watson wrote in an email. “You cannot come close to addressing the needs with two biologists.”

Watson said the state set aside $400,000 in 2022 to support a statewide freshwater mussel conservation plan that should help answer questions about why mussels are struggling and what protections they need to carry out their ecosystem duties.

But those funds are running out — he said DWR plans to request more cash from the state to keep that work going while looking for other funding opportunities to keep biologists on staff.

The cash would also support work being done by people like Mair at Harrison Lake.

The hatchery releases thousands of mussels across Virginia and other states yearly, including 5,000 to 50,000 green floaters — depending on how many mature female mussels Mair and other biologists can collect in the field.

“It takes two years to grow [green floaters] to a size where we can put a tag on them and then release them,” Mair said.

By tagging the mussels, researchers can monitor their health and learn more about what might be most harmful to them.

Mair agrees with Watson that more funding is needed to support Harrison Lake, to pay for additional biologists, but also to update and expand aging facilities.

Another source of funding could be opened if the green floaters are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, something FWS is currently working on. A public comment period on a proposed regulation closed on Sept. 25, meaning a final decision on the status is likely to come within a year.

Watson said that would make the green floaters eligible for Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund grants under the Endangered Species Act — and could bump the critter higher up priority lists for other funding pots.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.