The Licking River: A healthy sign as mussels thrive, including the endangered fanshell

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An abandoned bus slowly succumbs to years of neglect on the bank of the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)

An abandoned bus slowly succumbs to years of neglect on the bank of the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)


 

Part six of a seven-part series
 

The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river.
 

Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Sustainability Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.
 

By Andy Mead
Special to KyForward
 

BUTLER – A couple of dozen people on a Sierra Club-sponsored canoe trip were wading near a gravel bank in the Licking River, picking up mussel shells for an expert to identify.
 

“This one is the fanshell, an endangered species,” Monte McGregor said. “This one is another endangered fanshell. And another one.”
 

Freshwater mussels are bivalve mollusks, sensitive creatures with interesting names and an extremely elaborate reproduction cycle. North America has more species than the other continents, Kentucky has more than most states, and the Licking River has some of the healthiest mussel populations in the state.
 

Monte McGregor (center in sunglasses) identifying mussel shells for members of a Sierra Club-sponsored canoe trip along the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)

Monte McGregor (center in sunglasses) identifying mussel shells for members of a Sierra Club-sponsored canoe trip along the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)

But because they eat by straining water through their bodies, mussels are very sensitive to water pollution. They also don’t cope well with habitat changes caused by dredging or by building dams to create reservoirs.
 

There are so many dredges, so many dams and so much pollution that mussels are in trouble. Of the 300 species found in the United States, 88 are endangered.
 

The fanshell has had a spot on the federal Endangered Species List since 1990, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns that it is in danger of disappearing from the planet.
 

No one has let the Licking River fanshells in on this dire news.
 

McGregor, who operates the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Center for Mollusk Conservation, says the Licking might have the best population of fanshells in the world. There probably were thousands in the short stretch of river the Sierra Club members paddled on a “Learn About Mussels” outing last August.
 

The fanshell isn’t alone in the Licking.

Until recently, the river had 55 mussel species – a little more than half the species found in the state. But, while mussels are on the decline in so many places, the number of species in the Licking is on the rise.
 

After being awarded a $500,000 federal grant, McGregor’s center has begun bringing back to the river seven species that once lived there and died out. He and his staff find the mussels still hanging on in another river, remove their larvae, then grow them in tanks or Petri dishes at the center in Frankfort. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 18 places around the country are propagating freshwater mussels).
 

Sierra Club members gathered various species of mussels from the Licking River for Monte McGregor to identify (Photo By Andy Mead)

Sierra Club members gathered various species of mussels from the Licking River for Monte McGregor to identify (Photo By Andy Mead)

So far, McGregor has reintroduced three species into the Licking: the pink mucket, northern riffleshell and clubshell. They have been placed at two locations near the Clay Wildlife Management Area, in a section of river that is the dividing line between Nicholas and Fleming counties, and at two sites near the town of Butler in Pendleton County.
 

There are plans in the next two years to bring back the other four missing species: the purple cat’s paw, rayed bean, rabbitsfoot and rough pigtoe. An eighth species, the tubercled blossom, once called the Licking home, but it is believed to be extinct.
 

“What we’re doing is raising them in captivity and getting the Licking back to 98 percent of its original fauna,” McGregor told the Sierra Club paddlers. “It will be unique in the world for having almost all of its original fauna by 2016.”
 

The Licking is a good candidate for the restoration project because mussels already are doing so well there.
 

Although the river has some pollution from agricultural runoff, faulty septic systems, sedimentation and, in the headwaters, some coal mining, it still has a lot going for it, McGregor said. He points out that parts of the river run through the Daniel Boone National Forest, which means better water quality; and there are no metropolitan areas with their outsized pollution footprint until the Licking reaches Northern Kentucky.
 

Another very important factor: for nearly 180 miles from the dam that forms Cave Run Lake until it reaches the Ohio River, there are no dams.
 

“There are very few places in the world left like that, where you have that long a stretch,” McGregor said.
 

Turning a river into a reservoir can change the mussels’ habitat for the worse, and cut it off from the fish – yes, fish – that mussels require to reproduce.
 

Here’s the unlikely story of how this works:
 

The mussel reproduction cycle begins when a male releases sperm into the water. The sperm has to float downstream and find a receptive female of the same species. She pulls the sperm in, fertilizes the eggs, and starts growing them into the larvae stages inside her shell.
 

Then she gets ready to feed a fish and create more of her kind.
 

For that next mussel generation to survive, it must spend some time in the gills of a fish. Some species of mussel have a worm-like lure that attracts the fish, which gets sprayed with a face full of larvae. Some species put out a packet of tasty-looking larvae to attract a fish.
 

Some of the larvae will be eaten; some end up in the gills.
 

Monte McGregor identifies a mussel shell for Jo MacVey of Florence, Ky. (Photo By Andy Mead)

Monte McGregor identifies a mussel shell for Jo MacVey of Florence. (Photo By Andy Mead)

“If you’ve ever watched a fish eat, they will eat it, spit it back out, then eat it again,” McGregor said. “It’s the perfect way to get the larvae into the gills.”
 

The larvae move up and down the river with the fish for a few weeks, eventually dropping off to start a new life in a new place.
 

As complicated as that process is, it can be even more convoluted. While all freshwater mussels require a fish host, some species of mussel require a certain species of fish. If the wrong fish swims by and gets the face full of larvae, there will be no little mussels.
 

Some mussel species have a way of increasing the odds of attracting the fish they need. Take the mussel known as the pistolgrip (because it resembles the handle of a pistol). It needs a flathead catfish to reproduce. Instead of a wormlike lure, it puts out a substance that smells like a rotten fish – mighty tempting for a scavenger.
 

No dams on such a long stretch of the Licking mean that many species of fish can move up and down the river, some even coming in from the Ohio, McGregor said. That means better odds for mussel reproduction. It also allows for fluctuations in water levels and a wider variety of food sources that benefit mussels and other aquatic life.
 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mussels were threatened by mass extinction because their shells made nice buttons. They were saved by two modern things – the introduction of plastic buttons in the 1940s and the increased use of gas and electric clothes dryers, which caused shell buttons to turn unattractive colors.
 

Mussels are now threatened by the way we use and abuse rivers. Ironically, they are one of the few creatures that improve water quality.
 

“In a riffle, there can be 700,000 to 800,000 mussels in the area of a football field, each filtering a few gallons of water an hour,” McGregor said.
 

He told the people on the Sierra Club outing that he has been working with mussels since 1998 and finds them to be both fascinating and important.
 

“We need more people to be aware of these animals,” he said, “because if they start to die off, we’re in trouble.”
 

ABOUT THE WRITER
 

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Andy Mead is a Senior Reporting Fellow with the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. He retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga., and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and visiting professional-in-residence.

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