Freshwater mussel restoration in Virginia is taking another step forward with new projects from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the James River Association (JRA) under two grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) recently announced.
The projects follow a report released last year that called for a comprehensive regional mussel restoration plan to address dramatic declines in freshwater mussel populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“Momentum is growing in Virginia to recover these amazing freshwater mussels, but we feel again and again that we need a plan to focus these efforts,” said CBF Virginia Senior Scientist Joe Wood, Ph.D . “Freshwater mussels are an important part of the natural heritage of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These projects will set the stage for more freshwater mussels, cleaner water in fishing grounds along our headwater streams and a healthier Chesapeake Bay.”
JRA and CBF efforts would lay the groundwork for further mussel restoration throughout the region by developing maps, plans and identifying next steps. Administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), these grants are supported by the first round of federal funding under the new Chesapeake WILD program.
About 23 species of mussels live in Virginia’s freshwater rivers and streams that empty into the Chesapeake Bay, from the James River to the Shenandoah Valley to small mountain streams. But mussels are threatened by pollution, dams, climate change, viruses and habitat loss. Mussel populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are estimated to have fallen by 90 percent since European settlers arrived in the 1600s.
A single mussel can filter up to 15 gallons of water per day, which prevents pollutants like nitrogen from flowing downstream, resulting in clearer, cleaner water. Mussels create a habitat for small aquatic creatures, which in turn become food for fish.
For years, freshwater mussels have been raised and planted in rivers and streams by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This work has led to recent successes such as the reintroduction this year of the endangered James Spinymussel. But mussel restoration in Virginia has been limited by scarce funding and a lack of a comprehensive approach.
With the grant, CBF launches the Establishing a Plan for Freshwater Mussels: Protect, Restore and Engage project. Together with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and DWR, CBF will create an interactive map of Virginia highlighting stretches of streams and rivers with critical freshwater mussel habitat, which will guide future restoration and conservation efforts.
The map will also show where tree buffers along streams can best protect and revitalize mussel populations. As work to plant forest buffers is increasing, this map can show where planting trees can most effectively lead to healthy streams.
To raise awareness of Virginia’s rich mussel diversity, the project will create realistic 3D-printed models of mussel shells representing all species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of ‘Natural History of Florida. Scans will be open source and available to everyone. A set of mussel models will be used in CBF’s environmental education programs.
With its NFWF grant, JRA will work with experts from universities, state and federal agencies, private industry, and nonprofit organizations in a collaborative project to establish a freshwater mussel restoration plan in the river basin James.
Over the past three years, JRA has partnered with DWR and the USFWS Harrison Lake Fish Hatchery to plant more than 10,000 freshwater mussels in the James River and its tributaries, conduct population assessments and identify quality mussel habitats. Throughout this work, JRA recognized the need for a proactive restoration plan to guide planting activities, identify areas for further study and research, and establish strategic restoration goals for the James.
“The success of our mussel planting work so far demonstrates that it is possible to return these unique species to the James River, with all the water quality and habitat benefits they provide,” said Erin Reilly, Scientist James River senior. “This grant will advance efforts to bring experts together and chart a common path for mussel restoration in the James.”
The plan will serve as an important tool for state agencies, federal incubators, nonprofit organizations, the state legislature, and other funding agencies to determine where projects will be beneficial, facilitate planning, build capacity, and drive research The collaborative process, and the resulting plan, will also serve as a model for other rivers across the state.
These projects are among the first in the Chesapeake WILD program, established by Congress in 2020 to support Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration efforts that improve the health of our streams and rivers and the aquatic life that calls upon them at home.
“We are excited to receive one of Chesapeake WILD’s inaugural grants. Healthy fish and wildlife habitats are vital to a healthy bay ecosystem, and projects like these that put boots on the ground and restore habitats across the watershed are vital to saving the Bay and tributaries like the James River. CBF urges Congress to fully fund Chesapeake WILD when lawmakers reconvene in November to finish work on this year’s budget,” said the CBF Interim Federal Director Keisha Sedlacek.