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2001 ISSUE

Aquaculture center also grows endangered mussels

Mussel larvae are parasites of fish, so why does Virginia Tech have a Mollusk Conservation Center?

Mussels are important because they keep the aquatic chain of life in balance. They serve as natural biological filters, as well as being food for fish and wildlife. Mussels are also raw material for the pearl industry. And, they indicate water quality. Just ask the man known as "Mr. Mussel" — fisheries professor Dick Neves, who has spent most of his professional career studying freshwater mussels.

Over the past 10 years, Neves has devised a method for propagating endangered species. He collects eggs-carrying female mussels from the wild, removes the mussel larvae, and places them in small tanks in a 20- by 30-foot room in the Aquaculture Center. Neves' research team also collects host fish, such as darters, logperch, and smallmouth and rock bass, to which the larvae like to attach. The fish are put into the same tank as the larvae, so the larvae can attach to the gills.

The fish are moved to aquaria, and in two to three weeks the larvae transform to the juvenile stage. They are siphoned from the bottom of the tanks and placed into dishes, three inches in diameter or 10 inches square, and fed home-grown algae, another product of the Aquaculture Center. About a month later, the juveniles are of sufficient size to be safely placed in a riverbed, where they will contentedly live — in the same spot — for their entire lives, as long as 50 to 100 years if man does not destroy them.

Mussels spawn only once a year, so the process follows their natural cycle. A new building at the Aquaculture Center will allow Neves to expand the number of species he is propagating.

Neves began production in 1998 and was able to successfully release 35,000 juvenile mussels of various varieties in the Tennessee side of the Clinch and Powell rivers as part of the Powell Watershed Project. His funding comes from the states of Virginia and Tennessee and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1999, Neves and his colleagues released 115,000 juveniles. And by July of 2000, they had released 70,000 more.

In 2000, the director of Virginia's Game and Inland Fisheries agency granted permission for the release of propagated endangered mussels into Virginia rivers. Heretofore, state policy prohibited the release to any location other than where the female mussel was collected.

Neves is working to restore the eight different federally endangered species as part of a five-year plan. "Mr. Mussel" will also soon be releasing something else — a book called Russell the Mussel — to help kids learn about this valuable resource.

– Lynn Davis, College of Natural Resources