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UT students flex muscles helping to relocate river dwellers

09/29/2017, 2:00pm EDT
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

A group of University of Toledo students from the Department of Environmental Sciences is working on the relocation of river mussels from above the Ballville Dam on the Sandusky River. CHRISTINE MAYER

FREMONT — When a notch was cut in the Ballville Dam on the Sandusky River recently to begin the process of removing the century-old barrier, life for the waterway’s residents began to change almost immediately.

The long awaited journey back to a healthier, free-flowing stream unimpeded by that 30-foot high wall of concrete came with a major relocation project for thousands of freshwater mussels that had been anchored to the river bottom in the giant reservoir of still water trapped above the dam. As the water drained, these mussels were exposed and there was an acute sense of urgency to move them to another suitable habitat elsewhere on the river.

VIDEO: UT students volunteer to save local aquatic animal community

Freshwater mussels are bivalve or two-shelled mollusks that live submerged along the rocky floor and in the sediments of rivers, streams, and lakes. They have soft bodies that are protected by two hard shells linked by a hinge. There are close to 300 different species of mussels in North America’s waterways, more than are found anywhere else on the planet. They filter the water while maintaining a sedentary existence, and some live more than 100 years.

Mussels are an important link in the food chain, serving as part of the diet of raccoons, muskrats, and otters, and since they are filter-feeders, they are also an essential bellwether on the health of an aquatic ecosystem.

The mussels above the Ballville Dam had to be moved to other sites along the Sandusky, otherwise they would quickly dry up and die. As is often the case these days, a small army of volunteers answered the call and descended on the river, donning waders, boots or other appropriately uncomfortable footwear.

These mussel men and women were students from nearby Terra State Community College, a group of University of Toledo students affiliated with the American Fisheries Society, and some inmates from the Sandusky County Jail, among other concerned conservationists.

The UT group was led by Christine Mayer, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and the Lake Erie Center. Mayer said both graduate and undergraduate students took part in the endeavor.

“As a group, we removed hundreds of mussels from the river bottom,” said Mayer. “We focused on the areas that had been left high and dry by the work on the dam — areas that had been under water for a long time before the dam was notched.”

More than two weeks ago, a demolition crew began grinding a 10-foot deep by 20 feet wide opening in the 30-foot high dam, to create a controlled flow that would slowly drain the mass of water the 400-foot long dam had been holding back. The entire structure is expected to be removed sometime next year, allowing the Sandusky’s fish and other aquatic inhabitants to move freely up and down the waterway.

The Ballville Dam first had served as a power supply source, and later it captured a reservoir of water to supply the needs of the city. But after an upground reservoir took over that role a few years ago, and the dam was reduced to a massive, crumbling concrete political football. The cutting of the notch in the dam signaled the start of the endlessly debated removal of the obstruction that has blocked the river’s natural flow for more than 100 years.

Mayer said the mussels were collected in mesh bags that could be lowered into pools of standing water to keep the animals wet and healthy. The mussels were then transported in coolers by truck to a scenic preserve stretch of the river further upstream.

“They were fairly easy to locate in the exposed sand bars, but it was more of a challenge in the areas where the bottom was covered with rocks, or gravel bars,” she said. “We really had to scour those places, since the mussels were harder to see, and they were sometimes wedged between rocks.”

Tucker Fredericksen, engineer for the city of Fremont, said the mussel relocation program was required as part of the permitting process for the dam removal. He said the city reached out to “experts in the field” for guidance and direction on how to facilitate the transplanting of thousands of mussels.

“We needed volunteers, and the Ohio DNR helped out quite a bit, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was a big component, too, along with the various other groups of volunteers,” Fredericksen said. “It takes a lot of people — it’s a pretty labor-intensive job.”

The river makes a 130-mile backwards comma swoop to Sandusky Bay from its start near Leesville in Crawford County, where Paramour Creek and Allen Run converge. After a roughly east-west tangent of about 45 miles, the river turns to the north and squiggles its way toward the lake, with a 65-mile stretch between Upper Sandusky and here one of the first to be designated a State Scenic River, back in 1970.

The Sandusky River is a skinny, lengthy petri dish that provides an environment for waterfowl, reptiles, amphibians, these silent mollusks, and dozens of types of fish. It is the only stream in Ohio that is home to all six species of redhorse suckers, including the state endangered river redhorse.

In their rescue mission targeting the freshwater mussels, the UT volunteers and their cohorts removed 14 different species of mussels, including four that are listed as “Species of Concern”, a listing that comes before a threatened or endangered designation.

“All mussels in Ohio are protected,” said the project leader malacologist Michael A. Hoggarth, Otterbein University professor of Ecology & Environmental Science and Field Biology. “Over a six-day period, working with 29 volunteers, we moved 11,307 mussels. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and that is the most I’ve ever moved.”

Hoggarth said the volunteers picked up the mussels in two main areas — one a rocky environment near a campground upstream from the dam, and on a large sandbar directly behind the dam. The mussels ranged in size from a half-inch long to 10 inches in length, and some of them possess unique names: wartyback, mapleleaf, and the purple wartyback.

“We moved these mussels to a place where they can join some new friends,” said Hoggarth, who used a canoe to place the transplants in their new home, in the area of the river between Old Fort and Fremont. “We could not have done this without the help of these volunteers. They had no idea what they were getting into so I approached it like this was an Easter egg hunt. Everyone did their part and they were phenomenal.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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A group of University of Toledo students from the Department of Environmental Sciences is working on the relocation of river mussels from above the Ballville Dam on the Sandusky River. CHRISTINE MAYER

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