70% of freshwater mussels are threatened or endangered in the US but MD and PA partner to repopulate the Susquehanna

04 January 2024- The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and partners have been awarded a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s  Chesapeake Watershed Investment for Landscape Defense (Chesapeake WILD) program to restore freshwater mussels in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. 

The grant funds will support a comprehensive conservation strategy that includes restoration of mussel communities, scientific research, and public outreach. 

“Mussels are essential to the health of the many miles of rivers and streams in the Susquehanna River watershed, which ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay, said DNR Deputy Secretary David Goshorn. “We are excited to work together with our partners on this important project and are committed to improving freshwater mussel populations into the future.” 

The three-year project will involve collaboration with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania at Lock Haven, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

Freshwater mussels have seen widespread declines due to threats including pollution, habitat loss, and competition from invasive species. As a result, more than 70% of mussel species in the United States are listed as threatened or endangered. 

Robust freshwater mussel populations provide beneficial ecosystem services. A single mussel can filter many gallons of water per day, removing sediment and certain metals from the water, and improving the water quality. Mussel beds provide habitat for small fish, aquatic insects, and even plants by stabilizing the river bottom. Shells of deceased mussels provide additional cover for aquatic organisms. Freshwater mussels also serve as a food source for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

DNR has focused on restoring mussels in the Patapsco River for several years, and this past October rolled out a mobile propagation lab currently based at Susquehanna State Park.

The Chesapeake WILD grant provides an opportunity to expand a native mussel community to a portion of the Susquehanna River Basin that historically was degraded by acid mine drainage and excessive sedimentation from decades of coal mining and logging. The Susquehanna River basin plays a significant role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay, providing approximately one-half of the total freshwater input to the Bay. 

Active restoration efforts will aim to increase the quantity and distribution of freshwater mussels upriver of the Lock Haven dam, which prevents fish passage. Maryland DNR will take the lead role in producing approximately ten thousand hatchery-raised mussels for partners to stock in parts of the river that have suitable habitat.

“We are incredibly excited to be awarded this grant and to collaborate with these organizations to begin working to restore freshwater mussel populations in the Susquehanna,” said Zach Taylor, freshwater mussel propagation biologist with Maryland DNR. The grant is part of a larger investment in the future of freshwater mussels in the Susquehanna River basin by the State of Maryland and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”