Endangered Species Protection Proposed for Florida Mussel

05 October 2015 | Center for Biological Diversity News Release

GAINESVILLE, Fla.— In response to a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect the Suwannee moccasinshell, a freshwater mussel, under the Endangered Species Act.

Until its recent rediscovery, the moccasinshell was feared extinct because it hadn’t been seen since 1994. The Center filed a scientific petition seeking protection for the 2-inch mollusk in 2010 and followed up with a lawsuit in 2013 to force a decision on its protection. A greenish-yellow, oval-shaped mussel, it’s found only in the Suwannee River drainage in Florida. It was once found in Georgia, as well, but was last seen in the state in 1969. The biggest threats to its survival are groundwater pumping and pollution.

Endangered Species Act protection is the best hope for saving the Suwannee moccasinshell from extinction,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “And protecting this small freshwater mussel will also help protect water quality for people.”

The primary threat to the Suwannee moccasinshell is groundwater pumping for agriculture. An increase in center-pivot irrigation has lowered the Upper Floridan aquifer near the Suwannee River Basin by more than 24 feet. Originating in the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee River meanders more than 249 miles through south-central Georgia and north-central Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The mussel was once found in tributaries to the Suwannee, but is likely extirpated from the Withlacoochee River, and persists at extremely low abundance in the Santa Fe River. The upper reaches of the Santa Fe River sometimes cease to flow entirely due to groundwater pumping and drought.

Pollution is another important threat to the mussel. The Suwannee River and its tributaries are polluted by runoff from crop fields and poultry and dairy operations, and by pesticides, pharmaceuticals from municipal wastewater, and phosphate mining. The mussel is also threatened by climate change.

The Suwannee moccasinshell was first put on a waiting list for federal protection in 1994. Today’s proposed protection results from a landmark 2011 settlement between the Center and the Service to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled plants and animals across the country. To date 151 plants and animals have received protection as a result of the agreement, and another 65 have been proposed for protection.

Freshwater mussels are very important in the food web because juveniles and adults are eaten by many other animals including dragonfly larvae, crayfishes, turtles, fish, otters and birds. Mussels improve water quality by constantly filtering the water for breathing and feeding, but they accumulate pollutants in their bodies and are very sensitive to poor water quality.

Mussels reproduce by making a lure to attract host fish and then shooting their fertilized eggs onto the fishes’ gills to develop. Each mussel species has a unique lure and depends on specific host fish for survival. The Suwannee moccasinshell lure has a vibrant blue patch and bumpy edges that wiggle. The moccasinshell is dependent on darters to be able to reproduce, including blackbanded and brown darters. Darters are themselves sensitive to water-quality degradation, and threats to the fish thus also threaten the mussel.

The southeastern United States has more kinds of freshwater mussels than anywhere else in the world. The Center is working to save more than 400 imperiled freshwater species from extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681, tcurry@biologicaldiversity.org


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