Mussels Improve Water Quality

By Carolyn Belardo

When you see the word mussels, you probably immediately think about eating them with lemon and butter – or not. Those are saltwater mussels. Here we’re talking about the mussels you find in freshwater streams and lakes.

Besides being a food source for a variety of animals, mussels play a key role in cleaning our drinking water. In fact, one mussel can filter up to 20 gallons of water per day, removing small particles and potential contaminants from the water column.

Freshwater mussels play a big role in improving water quality.


Academy scientists have been monitoring mussel activity in rivers and streams for years, especially in the Delaware and Schuylkill River watersheds. They’ve been working on this in conjunction with freshwater mussel researchers at the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency Region 3.

Now they are involved in a new collaboration involving a innovative living science laboratory and interactive exhibition aimed at showing how scientists can breed freshwater mussels to improve water quality throughout the region.

Last month the Philadelphia Water Department opened The Mussel Hatchery at their Fairmount Water Works facility on the Schuylkill River. The multimedia installation, which is free and open to the public, features a living laboratory that highlights the critical role mussels play in improving stream bottom habitats and increasing water quality.

When the hatchery is in full production, these containers will house fish with small mussel larvae attached to their gills and fins. Once the larvae get larger, and fall off the fish, the mussels will be transferred to other units until they’re large enough to move into grow-out ponds. Photo by Andrea Rose


Freshwater mussels are the most endangered aquatic animals in North America. By breeding mussel babies at The Mussel Hatchery and educating the public about how these creatures can improve the health of rivers and streams, scientists hope to increase their numbers and put them to work filtering particles and associated pollutants out of other area rivers and streams.

Academy scientist Roger Thomas has been involved in environmental monitoring project development, management, on-site field work, and public outreach for 40 years as part of his role in the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Many of these projects have focused on documenting local freshwater mussel populations within the Delaware and Susquehanna River watersheds and other large U.S. river systems.


We have shown that we can be successful in re-establishing freshwater mussels in small streams throughout the region and, at The Mussel Hatchery, we will be able to rear juvenile mussels that can be re-introduced back into dozens of additional streams in the Delaware River watershed,” said Academy Vice President for Science David Velinsky, PhD. “It’s exciting to think that we may be able to, in some small way, increase stream water quality.

“Years from now, we might be able to see more dams removed and mussels able to reproduce as in the past—maybe not to the densities that William Penn saw back in the early 18th century,” Velinsky said. “But it would be great for kids, walking in local streams, to find a bunch of mussels and be able to tell their parents and siblings why this is so cool.”

For easy-to-read lessons on mussels, visit The Mighty Mussel website and the Partnership’s website.


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