AMHERST, Mass. – The former national salmon hatchery in Sunderland, now known as the Richard Cronin Aquatic Resource Center, is bustling with activity once again this summer after recent renovations and a new agreement among the University of Massachusetts Amherst, state and federal wildlife agencies to support freshwater research there.
Shared conservation interests among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) and UMass Amherst’s new School of Earth and Sustainability led to a memorandum of understanding signed this year, says center director and USFWS biologist David Perkins. It means the renovated laboratories will host state, federal and academic research and education programs involving students from the Five Colleges and others.
This summer, much of the research focus is on propagation studies for freshwater mussels that will eventually support population augmentation of the federally endangered dwarf wedgemussel and other state-listed mussel species in the Connecticut River watershed and around the Northeast. Researchers at the center are also propagating the endangered puritan tiger beetle, Perkins says.
The mussels, what some people call freshwater clams, are filter feeding animals that help to keep the water in marshes, rivers and ponds clean. They are also an important part of freshwater biodiversity, and provide food for many wildlife species, such as raccoons, otters, herons and egrets. The director says the center’s new studies represent the first major effort in the Northeast to propagate threatened mussel species in a laboratory setting.
“Research has been strong in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest but our program is the first in the Northeast,” he notes. “There are challenges, as each mussel species requires a different host fish to grow and multiply. Some are easy to raise, but some have really stringent requirements.” Much of this summer’s work will focus on identifying critical factors such as water temperature, optimum host fish species and feeding regimens, for example, for propagating the Eastern lampmussel. That knowledge will later be useful in raising more sensitive, threatened mussel species.
Allison Roy, assistant unit leader of fisheries with the USGS Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and UMass Amherst research assistant professor of environmental conservation, explains, “We are helping to develop techniques for state agencies and wildlife managers to use for mussel conservation. Mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of fauna in the Northeast. We have one federally endangered species and several state species of concern.” These will be future targets for propagation and re-introduction to appropriate ecosystems, she adds.
Peter Hazelton, aquatic ecologist for the natural heritage and endangered species program at MassWildlife, coordinates conservation of freshwater mussels and other aquatic species across the state, which includes conducting surveys to determine species distribution and population size. He visits the Sunderland facility periodically to assist with inoculating host fish with microscopic mussel larvae known as glochidia, which spend several weeks of their life cycle attached to the fish.
A handful of UMass Amherst students are working this summer at the center, including sophomore Jadziah “Jazzy” Hannon-Moonstone, a natural resource conservation major from Amherst, and Commonwealth Honors College seniors, environmental science and microbiology major Stephanie Gill of Chester Springs, Pa., and natural resources conservation major Virginia Sowers of Worthington, Mass. The students have been conducting experiments to determine which conditions are optimal for mussel growth and survival, which includes counting glochidia that attach to fish gills before becoming free-living juvenile mussels.
The Sunderland facility started as a state trout hatchery about 60 years ago, and in 1982 ownership was transferred to the USFWS to become a national salmon station and hatchery for Atlantic salmon in the Connecticut River watershed. That program ended in 2012.