Dec. 21, 1998 Blacksburg, Va., Dec. 17, 1998 -- Mussels are the longest lived freshwater invertebrates and they have been filtering rivers for millennia. Besides serving as a natural biological filter, they are a food for fish and wildlife, an indicator for water quality, and a raw material for the pearl industry. They are also the most endangered family of animals in the nation. Richard Neves, a fisheries professor at Virginia Tech, studies ways to conserve mussels around the world.
Earlier this year Neves completed a three part series for Pearl World Magazine on mussel conservation efforts. What do mussels have to do with pearls? The beads implanted in all pearl oysters come from mussel shells in the U.S. Ninety-five percent of the weight of the cultured pearl is from this bead. In fact, the commercial harvest of mussels has a great impact on the economy of the United States. The United States exports $50 million in shells to Japan and buys $1 billion worth of pearls from that country.
Nearly 70 mussel species are currently endangered. According to Neves, mussel conservation involves the practices of relocation, propagation, and reintroduction. Mussels are reproduced in the laboratory and then released by divers into the water. Because these practices are still being refined, he continues to research, study, and evaluate methodology. An introduction site must be evaluated for about five years before evidence of reproductive success can be determined.
Neves has been reproducing species from the Clinch and Powell rivers in Virginia and Tennessee at Virginia Tech's recirculating aquaculture facility in a five-year project dealing with propagation and reintroduction. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Virginia Tech have released more than 35,000 endangered young animals called "juveniles" so far. They were released in the Clinch and Powell rivers in Tennessee because in Virginia, juveniles can only be released where the mother was found. Virginia's restoration policy fails to factor in aquaculture solutions, so Tennessee has a standing contract with Virginia Tech to replenish the border rivers on the Tennessee side.
Neves is also educating students about mussels and their conservation. He helped produce one publication, Help Save America's Pearly Mussels, for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and created full color posters and videos about mussels.
The Virginia Tech malacologist (one who studies mollusks) is conserving mussels in the international arena, too. Last year, he toured China's freshwater pearl culture ponds and met with the staff at the Freshwater Fisheries Research Center, where he talked about his research. He also described the U.S. Geological Survey's efforts to conserve species through closed-system aquaculture of juveniles and the identification of suitable habitat to reestablish populations.
China has indicated interest in species conservation and has requested help from the United States. The Chinese malacologists outlined the technical assistance they needed, and this gave Neves an opportunity to work with Chinese malacologists to initiate a species conservation program in China. The Chinese now need support, such as books, technical assistance, equipment, training, and funding.
Russia is another country that needs help in its conservation efforts. The recent break-up of the Soviet Union is creating economic hardships that are taking a toll on research initiatives. It is more difficult to promote natural resource conservation during such turmoil, but scientists are still trying.
Last year, the Russian Academy of Sciences invited Neves to sample water quality and assess the freshwater mussel population in the Varzuga River, Murman sk Province. Neves, three Russian scientists, and six Swedish scientists participated in the wilderness expedition to the Varzuga River to prepare a conservation management plan.
Until recently, the Varzuga River remained in a remote location and had escaped the consequences of development. This river has the largest population of freshwater pearl mussels and the largest Atlantic salmon population in the world. If that mussel population changes, the fish populations of this river might be affected. This is the subject of the book Neves edited and co-wrote: The Recreational Fishery for Atlantic Salmon and the Ecology of Salmon and Pearl Mussels in the Varzuga River, Northwest Russia.
The conservation of endangered species is important both within the borders of the United States and internationally. Realizing the importance of freshwater mollusks, Neves strives to preserve an important piece of global biodiversity.
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