Mussels making moves for water quality

The St. Croix River’s abundant mussels play an important role in keeping the water clean.

By

/

/

2 minute read

Catherine Gatenby is a communications specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Northeast Region. Originally published in a longer form here.

Beneath the surface of the water, embedded in the bottom of rivers and estuaries lie thousands of little suspension-feeding bivalves called freshwater mussels. They are a fascinating group, with a unique role in our freshwater ecosystems.

The presence of mussels benefits all the life around them, and in return, they receive a little help from their fishy friends.

There’s more to these fish-charming bivalves than their underwater showmanship, they also take out the trash, clean the water and stabilize the foundation of the community for all the other aquatic critters living near them. Indeed, freshwater mussels play an important role in engineering the ecosystem.

Like cobbles and rocks, they help stabilize the river bottom during high flows. And they help aerate sediments with their movements. But these shells aren’t just pretty rocks; they’ve got gills and guts! By recycling nutrients into the food web they provide food for other aquatic life, while also creating habitat.

Freshwater mussels are also one of nature’s greatest natural filtration systems.

“A single freshwater mussel typically filters 5 to 10 gallons of water per day, 365 days a year” reports Dr. Danielle Kreeger, Science Director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

Higgins eye mussel (USFWS photo)
Higgins eye mussel (USFWS photo)

She added, “Since healthy mussel beds can contain tens of thousands of mussels per acre, they function like natural water treatment plants that help keep the water clear and remove many types of pollutants.”

Imagine 10,000 mussels filtering 10,000 gallons of water a day. Now imagine all that happening over 300 miles in a river such as the Allegheny or the Susquehanna or the James.

By feeding on microscopic particles that cause turbidity, freshwater mussels remove vast quantities of algae, bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemical compounds in the river. And what they don’t use is repackaged into little organic baskets of food for organisms like aquatic insects, which are valuable food items for fish, or aquatic fungi that facilitate decomposition processes in the river.

Put it all together, and where there are mussels, you find more aquatic insects and more fish and better water quality. 


Comments

St. Croix 360 offers commenting to support productive discussion. We don’t allow name-calling, personal attacks, or misinformation. This discussion may be heavily moderated and we reserve the right to block nonconstructive comments. Please: Be kind, give others the benefit of the doubt, read the article closely, check your assumptions, and stay curious. Thank you!

“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” – Bill Bullard

One response to “Mussels making moves for water quality”

  1. JAE Avatar
    JAE

    …and the “Stillwater crossing” had no effect on them-right!

REPUBLISHING TERMS

You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to St. Croix 360 and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email greg@stcroix360.com

License

Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlikeCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike
Mussels making moves for water quality