MIDDLE BASS ISLAND
Kristin Stanford is known as "the snake lady" for her efforts to save the Lake Erie water snake.
But she also proved to be a loyal friend for Lake Erie's rare freshwater mussels.
During a recent fish kill at Middle Bass Island that left thousands of fish and mussels dead, Stanford and an impromptu volunteer team rescued hundreds of the creatures.
When water was drained away July 16 to for construction to expand the marina at Middle Bass Island State Park, state officials discovered the waters contained a large, previously unknown colony of freshwater mussels. The mussels, once a prominent part of Lake Erie's collection of creatures, have been largely crowded out in recent years by an invasive species, the much-loathed quagga and zebra mussels.
There were thousands of native mussels at the marina.
"I think people expected zero. Ten would have been a surprise," said Kevin Ramsey, law enforcement supervisor for the Lake Erie Enforcement Unit for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
In all, 14 different species of native freshwater mussels were found.
That was the good news.
The bad news: When too much water was drained away from the site, the remaining water could not provide enough oxygen. As a result, about 1,300 fish were killed, including 800 gizzard shad and emerald shiners.
The lack of water also proved deadly to the mussels, killing about 3,800.
Stanford helped lead a rescue effort that helped save almost 800 mussels.
She got help from seven students who happened to be taking classes at Stone Laboratory at South Bass Island; her husband, Matt Thomas; and her assistant, Keith Hanson.
The mussels were placed in buckets of water. The mussels are now being kept alive at Stone Laboratory, while scientists from the Ohio State University, which runs the institution, figure out the best place to keep them until they can be deposited back into the marina.
Stanford was at the site, trying to rescue the water snakes, when she realized the mussels needed her attention.
She's used to being bitten by the snakes, so it wasn't a big deal when a fresh water clam tried to spit on her.
When she picked up a three-ridge mussel, "it spat at me. That's what they do when you pull them out of the mud," she said. "That's how you know it's still alive."
The main contractor for the work at the marina is Huffman Equipment Rental and Contracting of Eastlake, Ohio.
Ramsey said the work was permitted by agencies such as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. When workers removed water to allow the marina construction, they were supposed to leave a sufficient depth of water to protect the fish and other creatures in the lake.
Ramsey said he does not know yet what went wrong.
"I'm not done with the investigation," he said. "I'm not going to assign blame to anyone right now."
Officials at Huffman could not be reached for comment.
Stanford said Huffman workers cooperated with state officials.
"From everything I've seen, they've been really willing to do what's asked of them," she said.
The incident could have a positive outcome if the unexpected discovery of the native fresh water mussels leads to successful efforts to bring them back, Stanford said.
State workers will search the islands for other small bays where clusters of the mussels may be holding out, she said.
If places where they can flourish can be found, it may be possible to reintroduce them into other locations, she said.