|Friday, December 14, 2012|
By KEN BECK
GALLATIN -- In the palms of his wet hands, David Sims proudly nestles orange-footed pimpelback, sheepnose and pink mucket mussels.
All three are endangered freshwater mussels, and for the past six years Sims has being doing everything in his power to boost their population at the Cumberland River Aquatic Center (CRAC), allowing him to relocate them by the thousands into Tennessee rivers.
In 10 abandoned raceways that lay in the shadows of the twin stacks at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Gallatin Steam Plant, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s Region II Aquatic Habitat Protection Biologist nurtures about a dozen species of mussels, seven of them endangered.
“These critters are pretty amazing,” said Sims, who is passionate about the bivalves. “No other species are more endangered in the world than the freshwater mussels. We’ve already lost about a third of them… Once it’s extinct, it’s gone.”
Historically, Tennessee rivers and streams supported 129 of the 300 species of freshwater mussels in the United States. These freshwater mollusks are important indicators of water quality.
“Mussels are filter feeders. They have to have raw water. They clean the water,” Sims said. “The bigger mussels can filter 50 gallons a day. If you‘ve got a million out there, you got 50 million gallons of water cleaned for free,” he added.
“The question is not ‘what good are they,’ but ‘do you want them around?’ We’re talking about losing bunches of species of mussels. This is happening now.
“We’ve got areas where the mussels can recover if we help them. It’s a shame with as much science and technology that we have today that we could watch mussels become extinct, but it can be prevented without a lot of pain. Facilities like this allow me to get them back into the river where they are doing good.”
Indeed, in October, Sims and his TWRA compatriots relocated about 5,000 mussels to the Cumberland, Emory and Hiawassee rivers.
“It doesn’t look like much: 10 raceways, some water, two barns and three little rooms; and we’re doing things that no other folks have been able to do yet,” Sims said, making a comparison of the humble CRAC to facilities in other states.
“For everybody working with freshwater mussels, the juvenile mussels have a survival rate of about 1 percent. It’s a numbers game having to produce thousands. So far with this batch, we’re way above 1 percent. We’re looking at 20 to 50 percent, if not more. That’s due to water quality that’s here,” he said above the constant sound of rushing water.
The cold river water (58 degrees or so) is pumped uphill about 50 yards and enters the raceways at the rate of 120 gallons per minute. The 50-foot-long raceways are housed beneath a tin roof. Five of the raceways hold mussels, one contains about three dozen 2- and 3-year-old lake sturgeons and another holds nine alligator gar. The raw river then returns to the Cumberland River about 100 yards downstream.
“Three other states have facilities, and we’re the state most diverse with aquatic species, and this is all we have,” said Sims, who served as Sumner County wildlife officer from 1986 to 1997.
“What is so neat about it, this is not a hatchery. This is set up to deal with all aquatic species in Tennessee from mussels to lake sturgeon to alligator gars. Just grow ’em out. We were going to work with endangered snails, and are in discussion to work with the Nashville Zoo with hellbenders. So we’re not just fish.”
The 26-year TWRA veteran thought things were going swimmingly until TVA recently began motions to pull the plug.
“TVA is getting ready to put in a new scrubber and are doing a study. They're preparing to spend nearly a billion dollars. It’s kind of ironic that something brought in to help the environment is pretty much what is doing us in,” Sims said about the fact that TVA wants the Cumberland River Aquatic Center off the property by March.
Sims shared some history of the CRAC, noting, “The 10 raceways here were built in the mid-to-late 1970s as a cooperative joint effort between TVA and a private company to raise catfish. They were using the heated effluent water to make ’em grow faster.
“They had issues raising the catfish in raceways. When you’re in small areas and raising tons of fish, you’ve gotta have lots of water. If problems arise, it takes 5 minutes for those fish to die,” he said.
“About the same time, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, catfish farms took off. They just walked away from here in ’81 or ’82 and left this place sitting here and rotting away.”
As a wildlife officer, Sims dealt with commercial musselers who brought the mollusks up from their beds in the Cumberland near Carthage, which tweaked his interest. Then when he took on his current role, he began to do mussel surveys, learning about them and attending annual meetings that drew mussel experts from across the Southeast.
He learned that the success rate of raising mussels during the first two years were low and that Virginia malocologists (people who study mollusks) discovered that they were having better success using natural water.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Sims, the 2007 Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Wildlife Biologist of the Year. “I knew of a facility on Cumberland River that had 10 raceways and access to heated water. I brought it up for several years.”
Then in 2006, the Gallatin Steam Plant manager agreed to let the TWRA convert the old hatchery. After getting a memorandum of agreement from TVA, Sims pooled resources and formed partnerships to renovate the abandoned raceways and create a TWRA freshwater propagation rearing and safe harbor facility.
An eyesore at the time, the facility needed a new roof, electrical work, paint and much more. With no funding, Sims scrounged for money to get two raceways running with help from TVA, which put in a new valve and allowed him to hook into their cold raw water intake.
“We got two raceways going and put mussels in there, and they lived. That was a first hurdle,” Sims recalled. “Then the Army Corps of Engineers said, ‘What can we do?’ and gave us approximately $700,000 to get this up and running, so we're funded mainly by the Corps of Engineers and with a little help by TVA.”
While the Cumberland River Aquatic Center works with Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, in May 2011 representatives from six state, regional and federal agencies and from The Nature Conservancy signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to focus and coordinate freshwater mussel protection and restoration across Tennessee. That MOU brought together for the first time the combined scientific expertise and authority of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority and The Nature Conservancy.
“But now TVA seems to be set on shutting it down,” Sims said. “We’re proving what can be done here. This couldn’t have been done without TVA. I can’t understand why TVA wouldn’t want to help. Look what they would benefit from this. Here’s a coal-powered steam plant doing things that nobody else is doing: raising some of the most endangered species in the world.”
When Sims, who grew up near the Holston River in east Knox County and earned a degree in wildlife and fisheries at the University of Tennessee, began working with mussels in the Upper Cumberland from Hartsville to Carthage, he noticed no reproduction going on. There were just old and dying mussels.
The reasons why? When dams were put on the river, the water quality and temperature changed drastically.
“Some of these mussels live up to 100 years and grow to a size bigger than a dinner plate. Nobody worried about them dying off. There were lots of them 15 to 20 years ago, thousands of mussels everywhere in the river. But I found no reproduction: just dead shells in the beds,” Sims said.
As for the fish here, Sims said the lake sturgeon have been a success as in one year they raise them to weigh 5 pounds and reach 28 inches in length.
“That’s worth doing. When you release fish that size, no other fish species is gonna mess with them. Now you can catch lake sturgeon from below Wolf River Dam to below Lake Barkley,” he said.
“My personal goal is to make lake sturgeon in the Cumberland River into sport fishing. Can you imagine catching a fish that grows 200 to 300 pounds, up to 8 feet long, and then releasing it? They can live to over 150 years.
“The sturgeon look like sharks. They’re just beautiful: 3 years old. Just think, they’ve got 147 years to go.”
As for the success rate at the Cumberland River Aquatic Center, he’s said, “It’s so simple here. The raw river water and the limited use of the heated water from the steam plant during the winter.”
The facility includes an office, a wet lab with a propagation room and a classroom lab where Sims has educated more than 7,500 people, including Scouts, church groups, home school groups and university classes.
He can’t get over the fact that in a few months, the place may be swallowed up in the name of progress.
"If we don’t do this, things are only gonna get worse as far as the mussels. The mussels are not gonna come back on their own, but this is a doable thing,” Sims said, flexing his mussel vision.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.