HANCOCK COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) – Before becoming Lake Norris, the Upper Clinch River flows with a variety of rare species of underwater life. The usually crystal clear waters teem with trout and herons, but the waters are now missing a key player in the river’s ecosystem: mussels.
In a stretch of Hancock County, Fish and Wildlife Service experts said nearly 90 percent of mussels have died in recent years, and they don’t know why.
Jason Hopkins has been scuba diving for 14 years in East Tennessee, including where the Clinch River meets Lake Norris. He says he’s noticed something different in recent years: a lack of freshwater mussels. “On the dives I’ve been on, I’ve encountered them very rarely,” he said. “They are very important for the waters. And with their disappearance, it’s a little worrying.
Brad Kreps of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley program told WVLT News that the mortality has puzzled experts. “It definitely intrigued biologists,” Kreps said. “They haven’t found a definitive answer at this point.”
Scientists from Virginia and Tennessee observe the deaths.
“The Kyle’s Ford area in Hancock County, which is one of the most exceptional stretches of river for rare mussels, was one of the places where they started noticing this mortality,” Kreps said.
The Pleasantshell mussel accounts for half of the mussels in the river and experts say 85.4% of them are gone forever. This can cause serious problems for the river. “Mussel beds anchor the river and hold it in place during high floods,” Kreps said.
Mussels are also a natural filter; they clean the river where they live. “It helps us understand that there is something going on with water quality,” Kreps said. “That we must understand; It’s not good.”
A team of experts measured the water quality in the affected waters and found 17 viruses. One, called Densovirus, is considered deadly.
Kreps told WVLT News that there are many possible causes, including some human causes. It’s not all bad news, however. “People are doing a lot of great things to get the mussels back,” Kreps said.
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