Members of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ mussels team from Lake City place hundreds of black sandshell mussels on Oct. 6, 2020, in the Cedar River State Water Trail in Lyle Township. These native mussels grew up from being juveniles when placed in 2018 in Austin’s East Side Lake.

DNR transplants more native mussels into Cedar River

More than 3,700 black sandshells placed at Mower County sites

AUSTIN, Minn. — Oct. 9, 2020 — A year ago, about 1,500 native mussels were placed in Minnesota’s Cedar River.

Some of the black sandshell mussels pulled out of Austin’s East Side Lake by the Minnesota DNR on Oct. 6, 2020, before being placed in the Cedar River at three sites in and south of the City of Austin.

On Tuesday, more than double that number of native mussels joined them at three locations in what is hopefully the start of their revitalization along 21 river miles of the Cedar River along with its tributary streams. This stretch of river runs from Austin’s downtown dam to the next dam just across the border in Otranto, Iowa.

Mussels biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources joined by a colleague from the Minnesota Zoo placed 3,730 black sandshell mussels in the Cedar River State Water Trail in roughly equal amounts at each site in Mower County’s Austin and Lyle townships. The sites offer a diversity of habitats for researchers to study where mussels survive best.

“This really is about reviving the Cedar River and repopulating it with thousands of native mussels that will bring all sorts of benefits to the river. Mussels are like the coral reefs of the river,” said Madeline Pletta, a DNR mussels propagation biologist.

Members of the DNR’ and the Minnesota Zoo place tagged native mussels Oct. 6, 2020, in the Cedar River State Water Trail in Austin near the DNR’s canoe-kayak access at the Marcusen Park baseball stadium.

Pletta leads the mussels project started in 2016 in the Cedar River watershed — one of three chosen for this work by the DNR’s Center for Aquatic Mollusk Programs (CAMP) located along the Mississippi River in Lake City. Funding for the work comes from the Minnesota Lottery’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund via a grant to the DNR from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

Mussels serve as filters in the river to support water quality, provide microhabitats for smaller aquatic creatures like invertebrates and stabilize the river bottom. DNR surveys, however, show the Cedar and other rivers in Minnesota’s southern one-third no longer support their historical assemblages of mussel species.

This was the DNR team’s second transplant in the Cedar River of black sandshells from Austin’s East Side Lake, where they had been growing in underwater, plastic totes that have holes to allow in water and nutrients. The first was in July 2019 with 1,500 black sandshells at the same three sites. Overall, the Cedar now has about 5,230 newly added mussels.

Minnesota Zoo mussels biologist and Austin native Ben Minerich provided 1,103 mussels on Tuesday, with the rest from the DNR’s totes in East Side.

“Our juvenile mussels kept in East Side Lake have shown great growth and survival rates,” Pletta said. “As our program keep growing, we’re confident East Side will continue to be an essential location for juvenile mussels before their release into the Cedar River.”

Some of the juvenile, native mussels placed in July 2020 by the DNR in Austin’s East Side Lake to grow for possible placement in the Cedar River in 2021 or 2022.

DNR will monitor the mussels in the Cedar to see if they are reproducing, creating new populations and thriving overall in the river, Pletta said. Staff tagged the mussels, including some with a special tracking tag to help find them later with equipment.

A tracking tag is on one of the black sandshell mussels placed in the Cedar River State Water Trail on Oct. 6, 2020, near the DNR’s Riverwood Landing for canoes and kayaks in Austin Township.

Overall, the DNR hopes to restore seven species of mussels in the Cedar River, Pletta said, which means they expect to use East Side Lake for many more years. The lake now hosts 3,726 native mussels of four types: 1,504 black sandshells; 1,578 muckets; 635 threeridges; and nine spikes.

Depending on the mussels’ growth in East Side Lake, Pletta said, the DNR anticipates most of them to be released in 2021 in the Cedar River, with the others released in 2022.

In total, the DNR has 5,088 juvenile mussels (1-year-old mussels) from the Cedar River Watershed in secondary systems, including 3,726 in East Side Lake and another 1,362 juvenile mussels at the Minnesota Zoo and the DNR’s fisheries facility in Waterville, Pletta said.

Restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic prevented the DNR from propagating mussels this year, affecting the program.

DNR staff walk the Cedar River in Lyle Township on Oct. 6, 2020, while placing native mussels.

Austin was known in the 1890s and early 1900s as “Pearl City” for its abundance of freshwater mussels but they became over-harvested by people for making buttons and jewelry, especially for the rare pearls found in some. Pollution in the Cedar and its tributaries long ago also factored into the decline of local mussel populations. Black sandshells, for example, only had been found in recent years as dead shells in the Cedar River in Minnesota and its streams.

In Minnesota, it is illegal to collect live mussels and possess the shells of dead mussels that are state-listed species.

Freshwater mussels can live for several decades and, in some cases, a century or more. They provide critical ecological services, such as structural habitat for other aquatic invertebrates and food for fish, birds and mammals.

Mussels filter suspended particles in water, including E. coli bacteria, and are considered “ecosystem engineers” because freshwater mussels modify aquatic habitat to make it more suitable for themselves and other organisms. They are sensitive particularly to habitat disturbance and pollution, making them excellent biological indicators of a river’s health.

DNR mussel biologists walk upstream Oct. 6, 2020, in the Cedar River while placing tagged black sandshells in the water in Austin Township, south of Austin.

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Cedar River Watershed District

Cedar River Watershed District

Formed in 2007, CRWD works to reduce flooding and improve water quality on the Cedar River State Water Trail and its tributaries in southern Minnesota.