Many of us first think of mussels when they’re presented to us on a menu at a seafood restaurant. 

Well, it turns out, those are not the only kinds of mussels. Freshwater mussels like the Yellow Lampmussel are important to our local aquaculture as they filter up to 30 gallons of water per day in the James River, creating a cleaner space for all of us. They are also an important member of the food web, as they serve as a food source for otters and other animals that live around the river.

The James River Association (JRA), a nonprofit that monitors the river, responds to problems, seeks policy changes, and implements on-the-ground projects to restore the river’s health, is doing its part in planting 10,000 of those freshwater mussels into the river.

Photos Courtesy of James River Association

Erin Reilly, Senior Staff Scientist at JRA, manages the mussel restoration program and said altogether the organization has put in 580 Yellow Lampmussels near Percival’s Island in downtown Lynchburg.

The James River Association has been working on freshwater mussel restoration for the past four years and one of the biggest initiatives has been planting mussels that were grown in a hatchery in Charles City County at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery. 

Freshwater mussels are filter feeders and have similar characteristics as oysters in the saltwater areas, particularly in the way they both make water cleaner. They can remove sediments, nutrients, and different kinds of bacteria which helps stabilize the sediment.

“Oysters can filter around 50 gallons of water a day and a full-grown mussel can filter close to
30 gallons of water in a day,” explained Rob Campbell, Upper James River Senior Regional Manager. “So, when we have thousands and thousands upon thousands of those in the James River, we’re having virtually all of that water run through a nice, natural filter and it’s just an amazing thing for the sediment and keeps the water clear.”

Reilly said the mussels have a parasitic relationship with fish that helps them grow and mature into the hardworking mussels that are vital to the health of our river. 

“So what happens is during one of their life stages, they create little Pac-Men that clamp onto fish gills,” she said. “They’ve all adapted different ways to attract the fish, so they can clamp on to the gills and then they move around with the fish.”

Photos Courtesy of James River Association

She said they drop off after a few days or even months depending on the species and, when they do, they are fully-formed mussels.

Campbell said mussels are important to the native forage and critters who live around the river.

“We see certain piles where raccoons, muskrats, and otters are going in foraging for these critters in the river. So not only are they important for aquaculture and cleaning the river, but they successfully have also played a big role in the food web,” he said. “Everyone loves otters and one of their main food sources is mussels.”

Virginia has around 30 species of freshwater mussels and five are endangered.

Reilly said the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Hatchery have been planting endangered mussel species in the James River as well. 

“It’s really an exciting time in the world of freshwater mussel restoration because, for a long time, the hatcheries weren’t really able to produce a lot of mussels and it was kind of a niche thing,” Reilly said. “But they’ve now upgraded their technology and made some discoveries about life history and how to actually make this work. So now we can grow more mussels and it’s really taking a leap in the world of freshwater mussel restoration because now we have this ability to put greater quantities and new mussels in the water.”

Mussels can live for 50 to 80 years. Heavy metal pollutants can be tracked through their tissues because they’re filter feeders and the heavy metals accumulate in their tissues, Reilly said, which can be a really good indicator of pollution, but they also are threatened if the water quality conditions aren’t good. 

“One of the reasons why we’re starting to increase a lot of these restoration efforts is because we’ve improved water quality and we think the water quality is now good enough that these mussels can survive,” she said. “Not only did we not have the technology but the mussels we put in probably wouldn’t have survived until now.”

For example, one of the places that JRA has gone out with the DWR is near an old power station on the banks of the James River which has its outfall into the river.

“So, when you have a power plant, a lot of times what they do is take water in from the river, pass it around their cooling towers to cool everything down, and then release the heated water back into the river,” Reilly said. “And that’s what they did in the case of this power plant. And it was really stark to see that above the outfall there were still mussels and things like that. And then below the outfall there were no mussels because the heated water had actually made it so that the mussels couldn’t survive there.”

Reilly said JRA went back in 2020 to look at the location after the power plant had been closed and the situation with the mussels had remained the same.

Last year, the General Assembly pushed to receive funding to create a statewide freshwater mussel restoration plan, which is starting now.

The James River Association received a grant to create a freshwater mussel restoration plan specifically for the James River, Reilly said.

“So, we’re convening a group of experts to talk specifically about what’s going on in the James and what areas we should be protecting, what species we should be working with, that sort of thing,” she said. 

Photos Courtesy of James River Association

She said staff went out to look at the mussels that were planted two years ago and found some great growth on them, which indicates that the area is a successful place to plant them.

“It’s really exciting for us to know that not only are they still there, but they’re also growing really well and they’re thriving. So, it’s a success story and we’re hoping to be able to keep doing that and create more of these successes,” she said.

Through a grant, JRA is continuing its work on creating a restoration plan for the James River and its hope is to start implementing that plan soon, but it will require partnerships with the state and different agencies within the federal government and the hatcheries.

“But we’re hoping to be able to take the steps in the plan and implement them, continue to do restoration and hopefully make sure that these beds of mussels can be reestablished and thriving and self-supporting,” Reilly said.  

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