Volume XI, Issue 9 ~ March 6-12, 2003

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Chesapeake Outdoors by C.D. Dollar

Old Oyster, New Oyster

The same day I read Rob Brumbaugh’s excellent article about the value of oyster reefs as fish habitat in Sport Fishing magazine, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia fisheries scientist was before the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to endorse a revised proposal by the Virginia Seafood Council to plant one million sterile Asian oysters in Bay and coastal waters.

Last year, the seafood council withdrew a similar request after facing stiff opposition from the foundation, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and others who feared that adequate safeguards and monitoring had not been imposed to prevent accidental introduction of the foreign bivalve into Bay waters. The seafood council revamped its proposal to ally these fears, as recommended by the foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the institute and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Last week, with just one dissenting member, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to let the trial of the alien species move forward. The U.S. Army Corps (Norfolk District) still has to approve a permit.

As with many Bay issues, this one is fraught with complexities, Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Depends on whom you ask.

For many watermen and oyster packing houses in both states, the decision is a flicker of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. The wild oyster fishery in both Maryland and Virginia is on life-support, flat-lined some would argue. Maryland oyster harvest is the lowest on record and in Virginia, 99 percent of the oysters processed are brought in from out of state.

Those in the oyster industry look beyond the test and hope it proves that raising sterilized non-native Asian oysters via aquaculture can be done safely and with economic returns. For many of them, it’s not just a safe bet but the only bet.

Yet others view the decision as playing Russian roulette with the Bay’s ecosystem. They’re rightly concerned about the unknown and potentially devastating environmental consequences an experiment gone awry could have on mid-Atlantic waters.

In moving ahead with the plan, the states are ignoring the opposition of two federal agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, which spoke out against the plan — and preempting the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, which they solicited last year and which is expected this summer.

The approval is one measure of how increasingly desperate the states are to find a surrogate for the native Chesapeake Crassostrea virginica, which once was the most plentiful oyster in the world but has been devastated by disease and over-harvesting.

A friend connected to the aquaculture industry told me that field-testing Asian oysters will have inherent risks. But because we live in a global economy, we face similar risks every day. Ships from foreign ports pass through our waters daily, carrying foreign species of plants, animals, pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Rob’s article helped alleviate my cabin fever, but the decision to go forward made me nervous. He replied that this test does not represent an introduction of an alien species. He also reminded me that the comprehensive review currently underway by the National Academy of Sciences, due out this summer, will also bring important information to bear.

Along with others, I expected this next step. I hope it leads to some relief for a beleaguered oyster industry.

But the trick is making sure that the Bay’s already poor health isn’t compromised further and that efforts to bring back native oysters — for both filtering and habitat value and commercial benefits — aren’t undermined. Working on these parallel fronts would make a statement that we’re committed to restoring our treasured Bay using its original components while we’re open to dealing with changing economic realities in a reasonable manner.



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Last updated March 6, 2003 @ 1:57am