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Growing Mussels

Virginia Tech

Forty years on, the Endangered Species Act continues to demonstrate its effects on a species native to this area; the fresh water mussel. 

You might say these shellfish do the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping waterways healthy. More strains of these living water filters grow in this region, than anywhere else in the world. 

Credit Virginia Tech

The small buildings at Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg seem more like a fishing village than a high tech research facility.

Inside, bright colored Kayaks hang on the wall in this state of the art nursery for shellfish. Fresh water mussels incubating in large tanks seem undisturbed by the loud lullaby of live water pumped in from a pond just outside. Clamshells the color of sandstone under the moving water.
 Jess Jones is a restoration biologist with the Fish and Wildlife service and Virginia Tech.  "What makes a mussel from a marine clam, one is that they live in fresh water. Typically, they live in rivers. And the main thing is that they have to use a fish as a host to complete their life cycle.”

Like many who nurture the next generation, Jones is proud of the ingenious things these shellfish do, like how they snare their unsuspecting hosts, literally:

"So freshwater mussels have an amazing array of different ways they trick their fish host and basically go fishing for their fish host," says Jones.

Jones says one strain of fresh water mussel from this area has even evolved its own lure to trick bass into the arrangement.  That’s a lot work for these mussels that their salt-water cousins don’t have to accomplish in order to procreate. But it’s not only for humans that south western Virginia has been called one of the best places to raise children in the country.
“In the south east we’re blessed.  We have really rich aquatic biodiversity," says Eric Hallerman, professor of  fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech

“The mountains are ancient, the rivers are ancient, the area has never been glaciated we have a temperate zone that’s unparalleled on earth. The only place that’s even close is China.  Now compare us to Europe they might have half a dozen mollusk species.  We have 300. China has 100 so you can see why we have a large emphasis on conserving freshwater mussels here in the southeast. "

And so can the Chinese.  Hallerman and a team from here has begun a collaboration with China’s Freshwater Fisheries Research Center.

“A lot of their species are over exploited. It’s pretty dire.  It’s about where we were in, say, 1960.”

Without strong water and wildlife protection laws, Chinese scientists may be looking to fish hatcheries like the one here to help them rejuvenate their fishing industry and create new industries using this technology.

"Certainly, what we can teach them about managing their own environment ---we have a shared fate on the planet--- and if the Chinese can manage their air and water quality better, if they can produce food more sustainably, we all benefit," says Hallerman.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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