Volume XI, Issue 34 ~ August 21-27, 2003

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For Alien Oysters, the Caution Light is Blinking

Go slow! the National Academy of Sciences said last week.

That was the conclusion of a year-long evaluation of whether to make Chesapeake Bay beds with Asian oysters.

You hear about studies of this and studies of that, and lots of them reach different conclusions. This study is the one to believe. Over the last year, at the request of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Academy’s National Research Council sifted through all of the previous studies of oyster imports. They looked back to the 1950s, when somebody’s bright idea to plant an Asian oyster in our waters loosed the devastating parasite MSX, which eats up Chesapeake oysters for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

New troubles cut from that pattern aren’t out of the realm of possibility, the nation’s top scientists concluded.

Hurry-up is the mood today, so this cautionary study has arrived just in time.

In Virginia, oystering is so bad that watermen, seafood lobbies, politicians and even marine researchers are ready to give a promising new oyster a chance.
The chosen one is ariakensis, also called the Suminoe or Asian oyster. It’s being touted as what our native oyster would be if it worked out at Gold’s Gym and gulped steroids: bigger, stronger and faster growing. Ariakensis and our native virginica are so closely related that they even use the same family name, Crassostrea. But, the new reports warns, things are not always what they seem.

“Introducing these non-native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is not a magic bullet for either saving the oyster industry or restoring the Bay,” wrote Dennis Hedgecock, committee co-chair and a geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “It is unrealistic to expect that such action can reverse the long-term degradation of the Bay in less than 10 years.”

In Maryland, the Ehrlich administration has ordered studies with an urgency that suggests he’s ready to move immediately.

We admire his can-do attitude, but what we see in the findings released August 14 is a flashing yellow and certainly not a green light. It wasn’t a red light, but what they said was go slow and go cautious.

“Contained aquaculture of infertile non-native oysters on a small scale,” the committee allowed, “would provide more information for industry and policy-makers to make a sound decision on further use of non-native oysters.”

Still, we’re worried that Ehrlich’s man in DNR, dentist Ronald Franks, may be color blind. Responding to the report, he said he was “pleased with the findings. It confirms and supports DNR’s multi-faceted strategy to restore the Chesapeake Bay including the potential introduction of C. ariakensis.”

We understand all the good a healthy oyster can do — for the Bay, the marine economy and our winter menu. Academy scientists, too, pointed to the potential value of ariakensis to produce environmental as well as economic benefits. But whether ariakensis is that oyster, no one yet knows. That’s what the new study is telling us.



© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated August 21, 2003 @12:32am