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Scientists bringing endangered, water-cleaning mussels back to local waterways

WARRENVILLE, Ill. -- It takes some serious mussels to clean up rivers and streams, and in DuPage County, the Forest Preserve District’s Aquatic Research Center has been bubbling with activity for months as a team of scientists work to save species and clean waterways near the onetime superfund site.

Tucked away in the Blackwell Forest Preserve, a science experiment of epic proportions has been underway for months. The research center's coordinator Jessi DeMartini doesn’t hesitate to dig deep in the effort to reinvigorate the supply of mussels. Populations diminished in recent decades because of pollution, invasive species and other environmental factors.
It’s a real loss, since mussels are hard workers. But over the last two years, this creative rehabilitation effort has found its footing.

"Everyone wants to save endangered species…they’re right here in your back yard! Nature’s not somewhere else. It’s right here," DeMartini says.

DeMartini realized how low the mussels population was when she and her team were restoring the DuPage River. In addition to invasive zebra mussels, pollutants and stormwater runoff have been crowding out native mussels. The problems inspired her efforts to improve their numbers.

Cultivating the freshwater mussels in tanks is precise and measured. It’s a process requiring patience. Plus, some of the creatures are endangered. Increasing the population is important to restore nature’s balance, and there is another major benefit. These mussels filter feed. That means they clean out pollutants, including chemicals and bacteria, from the water. The pollutants end up stored in the mussels’ bodies and shells.

Mussels attach to fish to grow by feeding off their blood. So she stocked a tank with bass to give nature a gentle nudge. Once the mussels grow big enough, they drop off the fish. DeMartini and her team tag them. And when the mussels are deemed ready to find their new homes in the water, they release them.

She has already placed thousands of the mature mussels into the river, and now they’re hard at work. Since they’re tagged, the team can keep an eye on them to monitor their growth.

Along with the environmental benefits of the project, this is DeMartini’s passion. If you spend time with her, you can see that’s quite clear.

“It’s something we can’t ignore. we’ve lost so much already. It doesn’t have to be on another continent to save,” DeMartini said.

DeMartini says there are about 20 more of these hatcheries around the country, which isn’t all that much, especially considering how much filtering mussels do. She says they’ve already released more than 10,000 mussels into the DuPage river, and more are scheduled to be placed in their “forever homes” over the next few months.