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For Immediate Release, October 7, 2011

Contact:  Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Rare Georgia Mussel Gains Endangered Species Act Protection, Safeguards for Habitat

ATLANTA— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Altamaha spinymussel as endangered today under the Endangered Species Act and proposed to protect 148 river miles of critical habitat to safeguard the species. The mussel occurs only in the Altamaha River drainage in southeastern Georgia and has been waiting in line as a candidate for federal protection for more than a quarter century, since 1984. Today’s finding is the result of a landmark legal settlement, reached earlier this year between the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fish and Wildlife Service, that will expedite protection decisions for 757 imperiled species across the country, including more than 250 other candidate species.

“Endangered Species Act protection will give this rare Georgia mussel the shot it desperately needs at survival and recovery,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center. “Endangered Species Act protection, along with critical habitat, is the most powerful tool we have for saving species from extinction.”  

The endangered listing includes the designation of 148 miles of critical habitat in 11 counties in the main stem of the Altamaha River including Appling, Ben Hill, Coffee, Jeff Davis, Long, Montgomery, Tattnall, Telfair, Toombs, Wayne and Wheeler counties. The mussel has been extirpated from the Ohoopee and Oconee rivers where it was once found. It is still found in the Ocmulgee River.

Despite extensive surveys, only 57 spinymussels have been found since 1997. The primary threat to the species is water-quality degradation due to erosion and runoff from agriculture, logging and kaolin mining, as well as toxic pollutants released from wastewater treatment plants and other sources. The mussel is also threatened by drought, reduced river flows and water diversions.

“Protecting the Altamaha spinymussel will also help protect the Altamaha and Ocmulgee rivers,” said Curry. “Living streams and rivers are deeply linked to the South’s rich culture and history — helping rivers helps protect that culture.”

Freshwater mussels filter water constantly, removing algae, bacteria and decaying matter and thereby making the water safer for humans; on the downside, they themselves are particularly sensitive to pollution.

The Altamaha spinymussel grows to be up to four inches long and has spikes on the shell. The shell is pink or purple on the inside and green or brown on the outside.

Mussels reproduce in an intriguing way, by making a lure that looks like a young fish or worm. When larger fish attempt to prey upon the lure, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills. Juvenile mussels develop as parasites on those gills before dropping off to begin life on their own.

Freshwater mussels are the most imperiled group of organisms in the United States. More species of freshwater mussels are found in the American Southeast than anywhere else in the world, but 75 percent of the region’s freshwater mussels are now imperiled. Last week the Service announced it would conduct a review of 374 other southeastern freshwater species to determine if they warrant federal protection — the result of a petition filed by the Center in 2010.

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