• Hunter Cresswell

Freshwater mussels found in Chelsea Creek

Readers may have heard the phrase, “canaries in a coal mine,” but may not know that freshwater mussels in a body of water serve a similar purpose as those coal mine canaries.

On Sept. 26 a team of trained volunteers, recruited by Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment, waded waist-deep into Chelsea Creek near the intersection of Old Chelsea and Scott Roads to look for vulnerable freshwater mussels and found them.

An Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment volunteer using a hydroscope to survey for freshwater mussels in Chelsea Creek on Sept. 26, in partnership with Canadian Museum of Nature zoology research scientist André Martel. Photo courtesy Stephen Woodley

“I have yet to find [this] particular species in Gatineau Park; where we are finding them is below the waterfalls of Chelsea Creek,” said André Martel, lead researcher on the project and zoology research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

He recently surveyed the upper stretch of the creek, but said he so far hasn’t found any mussels like he and the ACRE volunteers did in the lower creek.

“In Chelsea Creek we didn’t expect to find many species; so far we have one, but a special one,” Martel said.

The volunteers found and recorded the locations of a vulnerable species of freshwater mussel called cylindrical papershell or Anodontoides ferussacianus.

Freshwater mussels are protected by law; people aren’t allowed to collect them without a permit, and despite this survey being permitted, the live mussels surveyed are being left where they’re found.

During reproduction Cylindrical papershell females release larvae called glochidia into the water which latch onto minnow and darter gills or fins. Once on the gills or fins they develop and metamorphose into juvenile mussels without harming the fish. Once they’re big enough, they drop off and set up a new life on the bottom of a creek or lake, filter-feeding on plankton, detritus and coliform bacteria. Though mostly sedentary freshwater mussels can move – using a single muscular foot – sometimes leaving a track behind on the river or lake bed. This species grows up to about three inches and can live up to 10 to 15 years.

“These are important sentinel organisms, they can tell us about the ecosystem,” ACRE president and ecologist Stephen Woodley said.

“Whenever they disappear, you know that something is happening to the fish, the fish habitat or the mussels themselves,” Martel added.

Woodley and Martel suspect Cylindrical papershell mussels can survive in Chelsea Creek because they’re adapted to living in mid-sized streams with a silty-sandy bottom. Woodley further suspects local geology playing a role. The Leda clay, which practically turns to a liquid when it’s wet, can cause landslides in the area, deterring development along the creek. This, however, allows fish and other species, including mussels, to exist.

Woodley said that ACRE has documented important areas for biodiversity in Chelsea, but this is the first foray into the waterways.

“If you’re going to protect biodiversity, you have to know what’s there and what it is,” he said.

Woodley and Martel said the volunteer team only has about two more weeks of decent weather for surveying.

“We’re going to count, to fill in the blanks right until the creek flows into the Gatineau River,” Martel said.

Which means the survey may carry on into next year when a volunteer team will again be recruited by ARCE and trained by Martel to look for mussels in the creek. The two even discussed broadening the scope of the survey to include Meech Creek.

People can get involved by becoming ACRE members or by reaching out through the group’s website to volunteer: acrechelsea.qc.ca.

But if people come across mussels, or even just their empty shells, Woodley and Martel asked that the mussels or shells not be disturbed, but photographed, the location documented and the information sent to ACRE to assist with the survey.

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