in the Powell River at Well Being Conference Center
There are 36 different species of mussels currently in the Powell River. Seven of these species are Federally (or State) listed as “Threatened” or “Endangered.” Some species are relatively common, others are quite rare. Two species only exist in one other river. Some species are smaller than your thumb; some are larger than the palm of your hand. A few species can live to be 200 years old. A few species have been lost to extinction over the last 40 years. The Clinch and the Powell Rivers harbor more species of Federally listed mussels and fish than any other stream in the United States. (The Clinch River is Powell River’s sister; both flow into Norris Lake, a large TVA managed lake in Northeastern Tennessee.)
How Mussels Feed
Mussels have a hinged shell like clams and live embedded in the gravels and sands of sections of the river where there is significant water flow. Mussels filter river water through their systems. They are sustained by bits of vegetation and digestible debris that is suspended in the water. They are fed by what’s edible in the river and they are poisoned by what’s poisonous in the river.
Benefits of Freshwater Mussels
They are therefore of interest to biologists and scientists for two reasons: (1) they clean the water of organic matter which would otherwise decay in the river, and (2) they are like canaries in the coal mine – they are an indicator of the aquatic health of the river. If the river is relatively free of harmful toxins, heavy metals, pesticides, excessive sediments, etc., the mussels will thrive. If the river is commonly contaminated with these types of harmful substances, the mussels will suffer and their numbers will fall. Right now they are slowly coming back from a severe coal slurry spill in the upper reaches of the Powell River in the late 1990s. The worst impact was in the Virginia headwaters of the river where the mines are generally located, but even here at Well Being Conference Center you can find black stones (coal) in the river.
2011 Agency Bio-Blitz
In August 2011, four well-known mussel scientists stayed at Well Being Conference Center for a “Bio-Blitz”on the Powell River adjoining the property and to investigate another site upstream. The scientists were from US Fish and Wildlife, the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center at Virginia Tech, and from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). We had just gotten some rain the day before they arrived, so the river was a little high and somewhat turbid (muddy). The way scientists look for mussels is to float in shallow water with a snorkel and mask and look for the tip of the mussel feeding along the bottom of fast moving turbulent water. When the river is a little muddy, you do this more by feel than by sight. At one site, the group found 13 species of mussels; at another site 10 species.
A very interesting fact about mussels is that they depend on fish to incubate their larvae young. Actually fish gills to be specific. To implant the larvae in a fish’s gills requires that the mussel be able to lure a fish into close proximity. Each species of mussel has its own unique form of mimicry. One species has a little flap of tissue that looks (so I’ve been told) exactly like a fly larvae. A fish is attracted to the waving bit of tissue and comes close enough to get a gill full of mussels-to-be. When time comes, the mussels drop off at a new place in the river. Amazing!
Well Being Foundation supports mussel research in the Powell River by partnering with Lincoln Memorial University and the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the Aquatic Habitat Study for 5 miles of the Powell River.
We have also partnered with Lincoln Memorial University on a successful grant application to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) which has resulted in $16,500 of funding for additional mussel related aquatic research on the Powell River.
Mussel Release in September 2012
On September 25, 2012 US Fish and Wildlife Service released 5,000 Federally Endangered mussels at four locations of the Powell River. Approximately 45 people were on hand to watch and to participate in the mussel release including faculty from Lincoln Memorial University, a Regional Director and staff from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) biologists, and scientists from Virginia Tech’s Mussel Lab who actually raised the mussels. Three Film crews were on hand to document this the largest mussel release in the Powell River to date. One of the reasons that US F&W decided to commit this level of resources to the Powell River is because of the mapping, species sampling and water quality analysis that Lincoln Memorial University has produced in cooperation with Well Being Foundation. See: http://wellbeingconferencecenter.com/projects/powell-river-studies/aquatic-habitat-study