Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 5, 2020


Perrin de Jong, (828) 595-1862,

Threatened Mussel to Receive 319 River Miles of Lifesaving Habitat in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland

RALEIGH, N.C.— Following 10 years of advocacy and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed today to protect 319 river miles of critical habitat for the threatened yellow lance freshwater mussel in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

“These habitat protections come at a crucial time for these struggling mussels, which are being wiped off the face of the Earth at a staggering rate,” said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney at the Center. “Protecting the rivers where yellow lance mussels live will help prevent their extinction and safeguard water quality for millions of people.”

The yellow lance is threatened by pollution from agriculture, logging and urban development, as well as by climate change. The species has declined by 70% in the Coastal Plain region and by approximately 50% in both the Piedmont and the Mountain regions.

There are only seven remaining populations, none of which are considered highly resilient because 86% of the streams in the mussel’s current range have poor, or very poor, water quality.

The yellow lance was first identified as needing federal protection in 1991. The Center petitioned for its protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010 and won protection for the species as “threatened” in 2018.

While it’s already illegal to harm these protected mussels, critical habitat designation adds an additional layer of protection, requiring any federally funded or permitted project to consult with the Service to make sure mussel habitat is not harmed.

“The grim fact that freshwater mussels are North America’s most endangered group of animals tells us our streams and rivers are in big trouble,” said de Jong. “Declining water quality got the yellow lance in this mess. But safeguarding these little creatures’ habitat can bring them back from the brink and help other wildlife and the people who rely on clean rivers.”

In North Carolina the yellow lance is found in the Chowan, Neuse and Tar River watersheds. The Tar River population is the healthiest remaining one and is estimated to have moderate resiliency. In Virginia the yellow lance is found in the James and Rappahannock River basins, and in Maryland it’s found in the Chesapeake River Basin.

The yellow lance grows to around 3.5 inches in length, with a shell that’s more than twice as long as it is tall. Lance-shaped when viewed from the side, juveniles have bright-yellow shells that darken to brown or black with age, and the inside of the shell is iridescent white, salmon or blue.

More species of freshwater mussels are found in the southeastern United States than anywhere else in the world, but 75% of the region’s freshwater mussels are now imperiled. Thirty-six species have already been lost to extinction.

Once widely used to make buttons and jewelry, mussel shells, like trees, accumulate growth rings that can be used to determine their age. Freshwater mussels can live for 100 years, making them among the longest-lived invertebrates.

Mussels improve water quality by filtering small particles from the water as they eat. They reproduce by making lures that looks like fish, crayfish, or worms; when their host fishes attempt to prey upon the lures, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills, sometimes clamping the fish's face inside their shell. Juvenile mussels develop as parasites on the gills before dropping off to begin life on their own. The yellow lance’s host fish are the white shiner and pinewoods shiner.

In dirty water the fish cannot see the mussel’s lure, so the mussel cannot reproduce. Dams can also separate mussels from their specific host fishes.

Yellow lance photo by Sarah McRae, USFWS.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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