Volume 12, Issue 23 ~ June 3-9, 2004
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Ariakensis: The Answer or Frankenstein’s Oyster?
The Asia-originated oyster ariakensis loved its new home.

At the end of the summer of 2001, a team of scientists walked away from a salty tidal pond off the Rappahannock River in Virginia’s Northern Neck — leaving part of their experiment behind.

Over the next three years, while Maryland, Virginia and the National Academy of Scientists pondered protocols for introducing ariakensis oysters into Chesapeake waters, the abandoned oysters grew and prospered.

They slipped through the hands of science just as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster escaped to make his own way in the world.

The oysters were lost in an experiment under the direction of Jim Wesson, Virginia’s man on oyster restoration. As Wesson recalled for Bay Weekly, some hundred experimental oysters were set out “in a wire enclosure like crabpot wire.” Wesson chose the muddy backwater to see if the oysters — which he’d been testing since 1997 under legislative direction to bring Virginia oysters that could survive in the troubled Bay — would “be strong enough pumpers in mud.” With “two inches of water and a foot of mud at low tide,” it was a good site for the experiment. An equal batch was set out on a sandy site.

photo by Larry Chowning for the Southside Sentinel, Urbana, Virginia.
Forgotten and abandoned for three years, ariakensis oysters recovered from a Virginia creek, grew to the size of a man’s palm.
They did wonderful in both sites,” Wesson remembers.

When the oysters were retrieved at summer’s end, some — just how many depends on who’s telling the story — were pushed underfoot down into the muck.

But the muck didn’t keep them down. “These are good strong animals that pumped themselves out,” said Wesson. “Unaware, they were still doing our test for us and doing very well.”

By the time of their rediscovery, the oysters had grown as big as dinner plates, according to the firsthand account of Capt. Bob Jensen, a Virginia oyster-restoration entrepreneur.

“That’s not surprising to anybody who’d worked with them,” said Wesson. “They get nice and thick and heavy.”

Jensen, who has oystering plans of his own in the tidal pond, is rejoicing, too, claiming that muck-loving ariakensis is just the animal to help make Chesapeake waters fit for native oysters. “This is an animal that will thrive,” he said.

Are we ready to pin Chesapeake Country’s oystering future on a creature supersized like a 64-ounce slurpee?

Not just yet.

We’ve learned a thing or two about ariakensis, but not enough to push Maryland and Virginia sooner toward their shared goal of restocking Chesapeake waters with fertile ariakensis.

These ariakensis are so full of surprises they might be the answer. Or they might be Frankenstein’s oyster.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.