MONTAGUE — Shoulders-deep in cold, clear water, Ayla Skorupa, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Ph. D. research student employed by the state, pushed 100 meters up Sawmill River, unwinding a measuring tape above her head.
Every 15 feet or so, Skorupa put a flag into the bank, marking six sections where she and three others wearing wetsuits, waders and holding glass-bottomed buckets searched the riverbed Monday for a “rock that’s not a rock” — endangered freshwater brook floater mussels, explained Peter Hazelton, an aquatic ecologist with the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
Counting mussels and documenting habitat conditions isn’t glamorous. But it’s necessary so that researchers know where to target their conservation efforts. And a good amount of that work is shouldered by volunteers.
Holding onto the other end of the measuring tape was Aliki Fornier, a volunteer from Deerfield. She’s looked for mussels four times already.
“I want to be a school teacher, but I really like lab work,” Fornier said. She recently graduated from Eckerd College in Florida with a degree in biology. “Even though I’m done with biology studies, I really like the conservation of species. I don’t want to lose that connection with nature.”
Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy Council, which organizes volunteer efforts, said field, environmental and biological research are all labor-intensive.
“Volunteers are an incredible contribution to that — bringing volunteers into real scientific inquiry is also important,” Fisk said.
The conservancy’s volunteer program matches those who want to preserve area waterways with projects like Skorupa’s. Others include a water quality monitoring program, aquatic invasive species removal and an ongoing study that looks at blue heron populations and fish runs.
Notably, the annual Source to Sea Cleanup coming up on Sep. 22 and 23, is “our marquee event for volunteer participation,” Fisk said. Groups throughout the region have been organized to pick up trash along Franklin County rivers and streams. More information can be found at http://www.ctriver.org. Places to volunteer for the Source to Sea Cleanup can be found at http://www.ctriver.org/our-work/source-to-sea-cleanup.
“They don’t realize how much they’re helping when they volunteer,” said Hazelton, the aquatic ecologist. He added, about the brook floater volunteer program, “We need people who are serious, and have an interest in biology, and don’t mind being cold and wet.”
Hazelton, Skorupa and Fornier later crawled on hands and knees up the 100-meter section of water with face masks submerged, looking for mussels hiding in rocks. Any found were captured, documented and released. Skorupa collected habitat data like water temperature, the size of pebbles on the riverbed and how much was covered by canopy.
It’s paid for locally by a $40,500 state Environmental Trust grant and in other states with federal grants. Massachusetts is leading the effort. In the Pioneer Valley, the effort to reintroduce the mussels is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mass. Division of Fisheries, UMass and the watershed Conservancy Council.
Brook floater populations are in dire straits. According to a 2014 information sheet from the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the mussel is listed as “critically imperiled” in 10 states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.
A few decades ago, there were 20 recorded brook floater mussel populations in the state. Now there are four, and they’re on the state’s endangered species list. Those are in the Ware River, Bachelor Brook and the Nissiitissit and Farmington rivers. Populations have declined because of habitat fragmentation, flooding and decreasing water quality, Fisk said.
“Throughout New England it’s been reduced about 90 percent of its range,” he noted.
Right now, juvenile brook floater mussels are being raised in captivity at the Richard Cronin Aquatic Resource Center on Route 116 in Sunderland. Skorupa said they anticipate releasing some mussels next spring. Currently, researchers are studying habitat requirements, and trying to find suitable host fish for the species — which they need to survive until they’re strong enough to drop off. Growth rates are slow.
So far, Skorupa said they’ve analyzed 16 sites in the region and have found a few that could sustain brook floaters. None were found in the Sawmill River Monday, probably because the cold water is too fast-moving, the river too rocky, Skorupa said.
A thriving population of eastern pearl shell mussels was found, though; about 30 altogether in 100 meters. Brook floater mussels prefer warmer water temperatures and sandy river bottoms.
Even though it’s not a suitable habitat, data gathered Monday is still important. Of the 12 species living in the state (all found in the region), many are in some sort of environmental danger, Hazelton said. And the data could become even more important down the road.
You can reach Andy Castillo
or 413-772-0261, ext. 263