Ohio River Shows Signs of Flexing its Mussels

The State Journal
17 July 2014
By Mike Ruben

Matthew Magruder gets pumped about mussels.

As manager of visitor services for the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Magruder is obviously concerned about the condition of the stream. Approximately 40 mussel species do their share by providing a living under water filtration system for the river.

“Mussels are a very good indicator species of the health of the river,” said Magruder, who is based at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office near the Wood County community of Williamstown. “How well they are doing in the river is indicative of everything else in the river. If the mussels are doing well, it usually means everything is doing well because they are so sensitive to the pollutants and the particulates in the river. When they drop off then that’s an indicator that everything is going to be in trouble.”

Mussels were once a source for the manufacture of buttons. They may not be thriving, but they are improving.

“The Ohio is historically a very polluted river,” Magruder said. “A lot of industry is located along the river and big cities are near it. Mussels were extremely imperiled before the Clean Water Act (1972) was implemented, but they are taking a positive turn.”

The casual observer overlooks the mussel impact, according to Magruder. Freshwater mussels act like little water filtration pumps on the bottom of the river. They not only serve as a food source for other species, they clean the water.

“The underwater area is very important,” said Magruder, a Virginia native with a graduate degree from Michigan State University. “Mussels improve river quality. We’re trying to improve their health and numbers.”

An ongoing concern has been an invasion by the non-native zebra mussels.

Organized in 1990, Ohio River Islands Refuge consists of 26 locations (22 islands) along a 362 mile stretch between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Eighteen of the islands are situated in West Virginia water along with two each in Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Magruder said it is essential to restore and protect the habitat along one of the nation’s busiest inland waterways.

“The objective that we’re trying to accomplish ecologically is the preservation and conservation of the quality river environment for the wildlife and people of the Ohio Valley,” he said. “The islands provide a fairly rare habitat that has been diminishing over time. Mammals, birds and fish need a place to live and keeping some of the habitat in its natural form is very important for the health of the river.”

Nearly 200 species of migratory birds frequent the total of 3,400 acres as a place to feed and rest. Waterfowl including wood ducks, mallards and Canada geese nest on the refuge. There are 100 species of fish such as bass, catfish and sauger.

Refuge islands are open to the public, but accessible only by boat with the exception of Middle Island at St. Marys and a small parcel located on Wheeling Island.

Memberships ($15 individual or $25 family) are available for the Friends of the Ohio River Islands National Refuge, 3982 Waverly Road, Williamstown, WV 26187-9529.

The Williamstown headquarters offers a visitor’s center with exhibits and walking trails. The facility is open from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the center at 304-375-2923, on Facebook or at fws.gov/refuge/ohio_river_islands/ for details.