VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Two recently-announced grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will allow the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and James River Association to move forward with freshwater mussel restoration in Virginia.

The projects come after a 2021 report calling for a comprehensive regional plan for mussel restoration to tackle dramatic declines in its population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“Momentum is growing in Virginia to bring back these amazing freshwater mussels, but we hear time and again that we need a plan to focus these efforts,” said Dr. Joe Wood, Virginia senior scientist with the foundation in a news release. “Freshwater mussels are an important part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s natural heritage.

“These projects will set the stage for more freshwater mussels, cleaner water in fishing spots along our headwater streams, and a healthier Chesapeake Bay.”

The foundation and association are hopeful that additional mussel restoration can take place throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through the development of maps, plans and identifying next steps.

The $3.5 million in grants are supported by the first round of federal money under the new Chesapeake Watershed Investments in Landscape Defense (WILD) Act.

Roughly 23 mussel species live in Virginia freshwater rivers and streams flowing into the bay from the James River to the Shenandoah Valley to small mountain streams, but their populations in the bay watershed have fallen off by an estimated 90% since European colonists came in the 1600s.

A single mussel can filter up to 15 gallons of water per day. It helps prevent pollutants such as nitrogen from flowing downstream and leads to clearer and cleaner water.

The foundation is using the grant to launch the project, Establishing a Plan for Freshwater Mussels: Protect, Restore and Engage, in which it will create an interactive map highlighting stretches of streams and rivers with critical freshwater mussel habitat. That, it said, will help guide future restoration and conservation efforts.

The project will also create 3D printed models of mussel shells representing all the species in the bay’s watershed, working together with the Smithsonian Institution and the Florida Museum and Natural History.

“The success of our mussel planting work to date shows that it is possible to bring these unique species back to James River, with all of the water quality and habitat benefits that they provide,” said Erin Reilly, Senior Staff Scientist for the James River Association. “This grant will buoy efforts to bring the experts together and chart a common course for mussel restoration in the James.”