Nature’s Riverkeepers, Mussels Receive Additional Protection on North Florida, Alabama Watersheds

From Press Release/Center for Biological Diversity

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended Endangered Species Act protection to eight species of freshwater mussels and 1,494 miles of stream in Alabama and Florida today, following an agreement reached with the Center for Biological Diversity in 2011 to speed protection decisions for 757 species around the country. The mussels have been waiting in line for federal protection since 2004.

Mussel power: Lampsilis' display attracts host fish on the Coosa River, AL. Photo by Paul L. Freeman, The Nature Conservancy/published on Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society website.

“Freshwater mussels are an integral part of the natural and cultural heritage of the Southeast, and it’s very exciting that these eight species are getting the protection they need to survive,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center. “The Endangered Species Act has a 99 percent success rate at saving species from extinction, so now these cool animals have a fighting chance.”

Newly protected are the Alabama pearlshell, Choctaw bean, fuzzy pigtoe, narrow pigtoe, round ebonyshell, southern kidneyshell, southern sandshell and tapered pigtoe. They live in the Escambia, Yellow, Choctawhatchee and Mobile river watersheds, where they’re threatened by pollution and habitat degradation. Freshwater mussels are particularly sensitive to pollution; they filter water, making it cleaner for humans.

“Protecting freshwater mussels and their habitat also protects water quality for people,” said Curry. “Living streams and rivers are deeply linked to the South’s rich culture and history — helping rivers helps protect that culture.”

The habitat protected for the eight mussels in Florida is in Bay, Escambia, Holmes, Jackson, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Washington counties; in Alabama it includes areas in Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Monroe and Pike counties.

Freshwater mussels are the most imperiled group of animals in the United States. More species of freshwater mussels are found in the American Southeast than anywhere else in the world, but 75 percent of the region’s freshwater mussels are now at risk of extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity is working to protect more than 400 freshwater plants and animals in the Southeast.

Mussels reproduce by making a lure that looks like a young fish or insect; when larger fish attempt to prey upon the lure, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills. Juvenile mussels develop as parasites on the gills before dropping off to begin life on their own. In dirty water, the fish can’t see the mussel’s lure, so the mussel has no chance to reproduce.

Once widely used to make buttons and jewelry, mussel shells, like trees, accumulate growth rings that can be used to determine their age. Freshwater mussels can live for centuries, making them among the longest-lived invertebrates.

To read more about mussels and other freshwater mollusks, click here.