Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 5, 2016

Contact: Jaclyn Lopez, (727) 490-9190,

Florida Freshwater Mussel Threatened by Groundwater Withdrawals,
Fertilizer Pollution Gains Endangered Species Act Protection

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— In response to a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected the Suwannee moccasinshell, a freshwater Florida mussel, under the Endangered Species Act. The most significant threats to the mussel are groundwater withdrawals for agriculture, exposure to ammonia and pesticides, and nutrient loading within the Suwannee River Basin. The Suwannee moccasinshell was first put on a waiting list for federal protection in 1994.

Suwannee moccasinshell
Suwannee moccasinshell photo courtesy USFWS. This image is available for media use.

Until its recent rediscovery, the moccasinshell was feared extinct because it hadn’t been seen since 1994. The Center filed a scientific petition seeking protection for the 2-inch mollusk in 2010 and followed up with a lawsuit in 2013 to force a decision on its protection. A greenish-yellow, oval-shaped mussel, the moccasinshell is found only in the Suwannee River drainage in Florida. It was once found in Georgia, as well, but hasn’t been seen in the state since 1969.

“The Suwannee moccasinshell is Exhibit A in illustrating the longstanding abuse and mismanagement of the Suwanee River Basin,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center. “Protection under the Endangered Species Act will help ensure healthy water quality and quantity for this tiny mussel and people alike.”

Originating in the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee River meanders more than 249 miles through south-central Georgia and north-central Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. An increase in center-pivot irrigation has lowered the Upper Floridan aquifer near the Suwannee River Basin by more than 24 feet, severely threatening the mussel. Once found in tributaries to the Suwannee, the mussel is now likely extirpated from the Withlacoochee River and persists at extremely low abundance in the Santa Fe River. The upper reaches of the Santa Fe River sometimes cease to flow entirely due to groundwater pumping and drought.

Pollution is another significant threat to the mussel. The Suwannee River and its tributaries are polluted by runoff from crop fields and poultry and dairy operations, and by pesticides, pharmaceuticals from municipal wastewater and phosphate mining. The mussel is also threatened by climate change.

Freshwater mussels are very important in the food web because juveniles and adults are eaten by many other animals, including dragonfly larvae, crayfishes, turtles, fish, otters and birds. Mussels improve water quality by constantly filtering the water for breathing and feeding, but they accumulate pollutants in their bodies and are very sensitive to poor water quality.

Mussels reproduce by making a lure to attract host fish and then shooting their fertilized eggs onto the fishes’ gills. Each mussel species has a unique lure and depends on specific host fish for survival. The Suwannee moccasinshell lure has a vibrant blue patch and bumpy edges that wiggle. It is dependent on darters to be able to reproduce, including blackbanded and brown darters. Darters are themselves sensitive to water-quality degradation, and threats to the fish also threaten the mussel.

The southeastern United States has more kinds of freshwater mussels than anywhere else in the world. The Center is working to save more than 400 imperiled freshwater species from extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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