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Mussels in Sydenham of 'global concern'

By Tom Morrison, Chatham This Week

Watershed technician Greg Wilcox with several species of mussels found in the Sydenham River, in this file photograph from 2016. Nature Conservancy Canada has released a report identifying 13 key biodiversity areas in Canada, and among them are the east Sydenham River and the eastern part of Lake St. Clair. Both have species of mussels, says the NCC, that are “of global conservation concern.” File photo/Postmedia Network

Watershed technician Greg Wilcox with several species of mussels found in the Sydenham River, in this file photograph from 2016. Nature Conservancy Canada has released a report identifying 13 key biodiversity areas in Canada, and among them are the east Sydenham River and the eastern part of Lake St. Clair. Both have species of mussels, says the NCC, that are “of global conservation concern.” File photo/Postmedia Network

A biologist with a conservation organization hopes a new report helps people understand the global significance of eastern Lake St. Clair and the East Sydenham River.

Nature Conservancy Canada has released a report identifying 13 key biodiversity areas in Canada. These areas are part of a global initiative to recognize areas which need to be conserved due to the presence of threatened freshwater species, said Dan Kraus, a senior conservation biologist with the NCC and an author of the report.

Eastern Lake St. Clair has two species of mussels “that are of global conservation concern” and the East Sydenham River has five, he said.

“These are species of freshwater mussel that actually at one time were quite widespread and common, generally, but because of threats to water quality and also invasive species, their number and their range has really, really declined,” said Kraus, who is based out of Guelph.

The East Sydenham is home to one species – the northern riffleshell – which is reproducing in only two other parts of the world.

“These are really, really important species to protect and if we don’t protect them in Canada, they could actually go extinct globally,” he said.

Some of these species of mussels are actually classified as more at risk than the panda, said Kraus.

Pandas are considered globally vulnerable, while several of these mussels are globally endangered, he said.

“They’re maybe not as charismatic as pandas, but if our goal is to protect all species on this planet for future generations, it is important that we save them,” he said.

“They do play an important ecological role. They filter water and they largely eat bacteria and algae, things that we don’t want in our water, so having healthy populations of mussels is important for water quality.”

The eastern Lake St. Clair area identified in the report extends from east Windsor and Tecumseh to Tilbury, then north to Wallaceburg area and through the lake back to Essex County.

The East Sydenham River biodiversity area is oval-shaped with Dresden and Glencoe on opposite sides.

Changing land use is another factor affecting these areas, said Kraus. The report points out the East Sydenham River watershed was historically 70 per cent forest and 30 per cent swamp, but now 85 per cent is used for agriculture.

Wetlands now make up less than one per cent of the area, according to the report.

“That agricultural use has become more intensive, which can impact water quality,” said Kraus. “When you combine that with climate change and the fact that we’re getting these more extreme storm events that can actually flush the land more quickly into our rivers and streams, it is something that we need to work on.”

Kraus said the key biodiversity area designation is meant to raise awareness of the importance of these places.

He said Ontario Nature’s recent purchase of the Sydenham River Nature Reserve is also a good step towards protecting riparian zones – areas situated between land and a river – which filter water through a forest or wetland.

The St. Clair Region Conservation Authority has several initiatives going on to address issues identified in the report, including working with farmers and landowners to implement best management practices, he said.

“Often as Canadians, we tend to think about to protect nature on Earth, it has to be done in Africa or in the Amazon rainforest, but these are places that are as important as tropical rainforests or as coral reefs,” said Kraus.

“Protecting these species for their future is really, as Canadians, ours to decide.”