Gators aren’t the only species being discussed in the Gainesviile area anymore.
The Suwannee moccasinshell, a freshwater mussel, may become the latest species to be protected by the Endangered Species Act after a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on Monday.
The mussel, which is found in Suwannee River drainage in Florida and Georgia, is most likely already extinct in Georgia. It hasn’t been seen in Georgia since 1969, said Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We were worried that it was on the very brink of extinction because it was already thought to be extinct, and then scientists found like four of them [in 2010],” she said.
The Suwannee moccasinshell is a 2-inch mussel that only lives in freshwater rivers. It is yellow and brown, although the younger ones tend to have green stripes called rays that fade with age.
After finding some in Florida in 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection and agencies sent out search teams for the mussel. They determined the population had declined, said Sandra Pursifull, ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
They do not have a total count of individual mussel left because the rivers are large and the mussels are difficult to find, Pursifull said.
“We might find maybe one moccasinshell for every 100 mussels collected,” she said.
The decision to determine the mussels threatened and endangered came after a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. FWS) to address protection petitions for 757 different species that hadn’t yet been evaluated. The lawsuit ended in a settlement agreement, where the U.S. FWS agreed to address them.
Freshwater mussels eat matter that other animals can’t and then become the food source for insects, fish, birds and mammals, Curry said. They also improve water quality by filtering harmful pollutants from the water.
Freshwater mollusks are the most endangered group of animals in the world because they are so sensitive to changes in water flow and water pollution, Curry said.
Some of the biggest threats to its survival are groundwater pumping for agriculture and water pollution, she said. The water pumping is especially harmful during droughts due to lower water levels in the river.
“Mussels are just really sensitive to pesticides and metal and other contaminants and fertilizer,” Pursifull said. “So, the runoffs from the agricultural fields and from phosphate mining is really harmful to them.”
She said sedimentation is also a threat, particularly in the Santa Fe drainage.
“Mussels really like stable habitats, so when you have a lot of sediment moving down it actually kind of destabilizes the habitats, and in some cases, if it’s a sudden flume of sediment, it could actually physically cover the mussels up and smother them,” Pursifull said.
“There’s a whole lot more species that were on a waiting list for Endangered Species Act protection that the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t have the money to actually put on the list,” Curry said.
Pursifull said the U.S. FWS is currently collecting data as well as funding research to look at other species down the road.
Since protection has only been proposed, there is still work ahead, Pursifull said. The U.S. FWS is now taking public comments until December and seeking input from scientists on the Suwannee moccasinshell.
If they decide to list it under the Endangered Species Act, it will go into effect a year from now.
In the meantime, Curry said residents can help by writing a letter to the U.S. FWS supporting protection of the mussel and its habitat.
“Once it’s protected it will be illegal to harm it or its habitat,” Curry said. “So, anything that requires a federal permit that will affect its habitat will have to consult with Fish and Wildlife to make sure that the activity doesn’t harm the mussel or hurt the Suwannee River.”