Identifying Sources of Stress to Native Aquatic Species Using a Watershed Ecological Risk Assessment Framework
The free-flowing Clinch and Powell River Basin, located in southwestern Virginia, United States, historically had one of the richest assemblages of native fish and freshwater mussels in the world. Nearly half of the species once residing here are now extinct, threatened, or endangered. The United States Environmental Protection Agency's framework for conducting an ecological risk assessment was used to structure a watershed-scale analysis of human land use, in-stream habitat quality, and their relationship to native fish and mussel populations in order to develop future management strategies and prioritize areas in need of enhanced protection. Our analyses indicate that agricultural and urban land uses as well as proximity to mining activities and transportation corridors are inversely related to fish index of biotic integrity (IBI) and mussel species diversity. Forward stepwise multiple regression analyses indicated that coal mining had the most impact on fish IBI followed by percent cropland and urban area in the riparian corridor (R2=0.55,, p=0.02); however, these analyses suggest that other site-specific factors are important. Habitat quality measures accounted for as much as approximately half of the variability in fish IBI values if the analysis was limited to sites within a relatively narrow elevation range. These results, in addition to other data collected in this watershed, suggest that nonhabitat-related stressors (e.g., accidental chemical spills) also have significant effects on biota in this basin. The number of co-occuring human land uses was inversely related to fish IBI (r=0.49, p < 0.01). Sites with >2 co-occuring land used had >90% probability of having <2 mussel concentration sites are vulnerable to future extirpation. In addition, our results suggest that protection and enhancement of naturally vegetated riparian corridors, better controls of mine effluents and urban runoff, and increased safeguards against accidental chemical spills, as well as reintroduction or augumentation of threatened and endangered species, may help sustain native fish and mussel populations in this watershed.