The Allegheny Front Rewind: Mussels vs. Jobs

Freshwater mussels are some of the most endangered species in the world. The Ohio River Basin is naturally thick with them, but keeping it that way has been a challenge. The Allegheny Front has been following the slippery slope of these mollusks over the years. In this week's Allegheny Front Rewind, our 20th anniversary series, Kara Holsopple fishes through our archives for this story.

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OPEN: Freshwater mussels are some of the most endangered species in the world. The Ohio River Basin is naturally thick with them, but keeping it that way has been a challenge. The Allegheny Front has been following the slippery slope of these mollusks over the years. In this week's Allegheny Front Rewind, our 20th anniversary series, Kara Holsopple fishes through our archives for this story.

DUNN: It was amazing...I mean, it looked like the moon surface out through there. Just a mud flat and you could see these washboard mussels sticking up out of the mud. But you could see where they'd gone through and plucked--it just looked like a crater where they plucked.

HOLSOPPLE: But it wasn't a mystery from outer space. It was the scene of freshwater mussel poaching on the Ohio River. Lieutenant Terry Dunn from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources talked to The Allegheny Front in 2000. He was in hot pursuit of mussel rustlers who were collecting the thick shelled mollusks to sell to Japanese traders in the pearl market. They paid top dollar for the shells, which were used to create cultured pearls. Prices are lower now, and mussel rustling isn't much of a problem anymore.

But fresh water mussels still have a high value for the environments where they live. Like the Allegheny River. That's where aquatic ecologist Tam Smith zipped herself into a wetsuit before diving for them in 2007.

SMITH: These are 7 millimeter wet suits-you get wet but it keeps you pretty warm.

HOLSOPPE: The Allegheny Front tagged along with Smith and her team from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy while they were studying mussels in the river bed. That day they'd had a good haul. Smithís team unloaded bags of them onto the boat. Charles Bier, Senior Director of Conservation Science at the conservancy, was also along for the dive. He explained the mussels' role in the river:

BIER: We consider the freshwater mussels are essentially canaries of the river ecosystem, right. They are more in touch with rivers that other things living hereÖthey secure food by actually sucking in river waterÖpassing it through their gills and passing it through their stomach.

HOLSOPPLE: And they help clean the water in the process. The mussel survey confirmed almost two dozen varieties of native mussels were living in the region--many which were once thought to have disappeared due to pollution and industry.

Even though much of the pollution has been cleaned up, dredging threatens mussels. Dredging rivers for gravel and sand used in road construction disturbs mussel beds. In 2009, tensions between dredging companies and conservationists were running high. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which regulates wildlife in the rivers, was considering new mussels species to add to the state's endangered list. State Senator Don White of Indiana County introduced legislation to gut the Commission's authority:

WHITE: I represent an area that never fully recovered from the last serious recession we had and these are critical jobs. I'm not an expert on the echo-system nor do I know much about the aggregate business, all I'm looking at is the jobs.

HOLSOPPLE: But Doug Austin, the head of the Commission at the time, had different ideas when the two groups faced off at a public meeting near Kittanning.

AUSTEN: What we've done to these rivers over the centuries has been to pollute them to a point where nothing will live. Now we're seeing a resurgence of them and this is part of protecting that resurgence.

HOLSOPPLE: In the end, a compromise was reached. Dredgers are allowed to continue as long as they relocate their work sites where rare mussels are found, or find new homes for the animals.

The compromise could be a life saver for these mussels, like the Northern Riffleshell or the Salamander mussel, which did end up on the endangered list. Charles Bier, in a recent interview, says what happens in the lower part of the Allegheny, like near Kittanning, affects the health of the mussel species higher up river in more pristine waters, and vice versa:

BIER: We need the connection between that live free flowing river and other places in the Ohio River system where these species are trying to exist. We hope to maintain a viable habitat as well as a working river for commerce and economy and so forth here in the Pittsburgh area so the species can move.

HOLSOPPLE: The mussels have to be able to move to reproduce and thrive. Removing dams along tributaries and reducing agricultural runoff can help. Unfortunately, another species is on the move. Experts fear Asian carp could soon make an appearance in the Ohio River Basin. These invasive fish eat mollusks and may prove more devastating to mussel populations than anything they have faced before.

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.