Propagation and monitoring of freshwater mussels released into the Clinch and Powell rivers, Virginia and Tennessee
Freshwater mussels (Unionidae) in the United States have experienced dramatic declines, and 25% species are listed as federally endangered. Hence, recovery plans for endangered species proposed a strategy of propagation of young mussels for release to natal rivers to augment declining populations. In this study, I conducted laboratory experiments, assessed site suitability for mussel restoration, and evaluated survival and growth rates of released mussels to meet the requirements of recovery plan.
I conducted multiple experiments to develop an improved protocol for juvenile mussel propagation and culture. Significantly greater survival and growth rates were found in newly metamorphosed juveniles of the rainbow mussel (Villosa iris) reared in a substrate of fine sediment and one-month-old juveniles of wavy-rayed lampmussel (Lampsilis fasciola) fed on natural food in pond water. Bio-filter media greatly increased water quality by reducing the concentration of ammonia and nitrite. The negative impacts of flatworm predation and filamentous algae in juvenile culture were controlled, and juvenile escapement was prevented. Juvenile mussels were successfully produced and cultured to stockable size (>15 mm) for release.
I released laboratory-propagated mussels at three historically important sites in Clinch and Powell rivers for the assessment of site suitability. Use of cages was the most effective method to determine site suitability because the free-released mussels (untagged, tagged) had low catchability. Mussels released at Horton Ford, Clinch River, exhibited significantly faster growth. Horton Ford is the most suitable site, while environmental conditions at Fugate Ford, Powell River, are deemed unsuitable for mussel restoration and recovery.
To facilitate the detection of released mussels, I applied Passive Integrated Transponder tags to laboratory-produced juveniles of the endangered Cumberlandian combshell (Epioblasma brevidens) and released them near Brooks Bridge, Powell River. The detection probability increased above 98%. I developed a set of hierarchical Bayesian models incorporating individual variations, seasonal variations, periodic growth stages and growth cessation to estimate survival, detection probability and growth of released mussels in a changing environment. Mussels of E. brevidens exhibited great survival (> 99% per month) and growth, indicating suitable conditions for recovery of this endangered species at this site.