About 600 of the most critically endangered mussels native to area rivers were released Thursday at locations in Wood and Washington counties in hopes of raising future populations of the species.
Two hundred of the fanshell mussels were released into the Muskingum River just below Devols Dam. The others were released near the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Kanawha River near Parkersburg.
The project was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, The Ohio State University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
BRAD BAUER The Marietta Times
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with other agencies and groups, released endangered fanshell mussels into the Muskingum River below Devols Dam Thursday.
The project was funded primarily through private donations to the Wildlife Diversity and Endangered Species Fund. The exact cost of the project was not immediately available.
ODNR fish management official John Navarro said several state and federally endangered mussels are struggling to continue in the lower Muskingum River.
"River mussels are important to us because they are excellent indicators of water quality," Navarro said.
Recent water quality checks indicate most area rivers are the healthiest they have been in decades, thanks in part to federal clean air and water acts. Still, years of pollution and poaching for the pearl industry have taken a toll on the area's mussel beds.
"Mussels in general aren't doing well," Navarro said. "They are very susceptible to changes in water quality and habitat. There are just a lot of stakes against them, making them the most endangered group of animals in North America."
All of the mussels released in area waters Thursday were tagged, which will help scientists monitor survival and reproduction rates. It could be up to five years before wildlife officials are able to see any signs of breeding success. It would likely take decades before a significant repopulation could take place.
It is illegal in Ohio to be in possession of any river mussels. Being in possession of a mussel is a fourth-degree misdemeanor.
The state's mussel population, which at one point was continuous throughout the Muskingum River, has since dwindled down to within the first mile or two below each dam.
ODNR Wildlife Officer Eric Bear said poaching of the animals appears to have scaled back after the arrest and conviction of a group of men from Tennessee in 2006. The group was caught with more than 2,300 of the mussels they had taken from below Devols Dam.
At the time of the arrests, the cultured pearl industry was paying between $1 and $3 per pound for the mussels, which can be ground and fed to oysters to make pearls.
"It really hasn't been an issue since that arrest," Bear said. "Occasionally, I'll come across some people who really don't know what they're doing and who are trying to use them for bait. But for the most part, the community is doing a really good job watching the rivers."
Bear said he frequently gets calls from concerned area residents when there is suspicious activity near the shell beds.
Marietta resident Bob Forbes was working Thursday on a rental property he owns along the Muskingum River, just below the dam. He became curious when he noticed the boats and divers in the water.
Forbes said he was glad to learn of what they were doing.
"Anything they can do to make the river more like it is supposed to be, the better," he said. "We're all in favor of that."