Experiment with oysters runs aground; Bay inhospitable to new technique, state officials say; Cost, operation criticized; Of 14.5 million spat, about 120,000 remain, and will be dumped

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two years ago, Maryland officials put 14.5 million tiny oysters into mesh bags and hung them on lines in the Chesapeake Bay. Their aim: to see whether the state's disease-ravaged oyster industry could be revived using shellfish farming methods from New Zealand.

This month, a few watermen will harvest perhaps 120,000 oysters remaining in those laboriously tended bags. Though they had planned to sell the crop, state officials now say it isn't worth the effort. They intend to dump the survivors into the bay.

"We proved New Zealand's way wouldn't work here," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, which was hired by the state to tend the oyster bags.

"It's impractical. It's labor-intensive. It's expensive. It isn't going to work," said Chris Judy, director of shellfish programs for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Suspicion trails the state's failed foray into "long-line" cultivation of oysters. The experiment is part of more than $1 million in oyster-replenishment grants and contracts issued by DNR that are under investigation by the state attorney general's office.

The Sun reported last month that prosecutors have subpoenaed records from the recipients of the funds, the watermen's association and an engineering firm run by a Canadian entrepreneur.

Simns and Michael Willinsky, the private contractor from Ontario who oversaw the experiment in 1997 and 1998, say they have done nothing wrong.

While it isn't clear whether investigators suspect criminal wrongdoing, critics say the experiment was poorly planned and mishandled from the start. The only surprise, they say, is that the state invested so much in an unproven technique.

"I had serious questions about the approaches they were taking," said Donald Merritt, who has run the University of Maryland's oyster hatchery near Cambridge for 26 years.

Others had failed with similar oyster farming techniques in the Chesapeake, he said. But state officials ignored Merritt's advice to keep their long-lines experiment small.

State officials say they don't know how much they spent on the project. DNR gave the Maryland Watermen's Association $109,000 in three contracts between 1997 and 1998 to maintain the oysters.

But the experiment also consumed a portion of the more than $1 million in grants and contracts that DNR awarded to the watermen's association and to Willinsky's company, Coastal Engineering Inc., to renovate the state's oyster production facility at Piney Point in St. Mary's County.

State officials say they wanted to see whether oyster-cultivation techniques used elsewhere could revive the Chesapeake's oysters. The bay's shellfish stocks -- and the seafood industry -- were decimated after two parasites, MSX and Dermo, invaded the bay in the late 1980s. Harvests fell to historic lows by the mid-1990s.

"We needed to move to get oysters out into the bay, and we needed to be timely and innovative," said DNR Secretary Sarah Taylor-Rogers, who was deputy secretary when the experiment was launched.

Oysters normally grow on the rocky or shell-covered bottom of bays and rivers, reaching harvestable size in three years. But shellfish raised on or near the water's surface by aquafarmers in Pacific countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia have tended to grow faster. Advocates suggested similar methods might enable Chesapeake oysters to reach marketable size before Dermo could kill them.

Willinsky was hired to oversee renovation work at Piney Point and to try new oyster cultivation techniques. He brought in an aquaculture consultant from New Zealand to design a trial of off-bottom farming techniques.

Following the consultant's plan, oysters produced at DNR's Piney Point facility were put in plastic mesh bags in August 1997 and hung on lines the length of a football field in three locations: the Choptank River, Eastern Bay and the Patuxent River. (The Choptank oysters were later moved to the Chester River.)

There were glitches from the outset. DNR had trouble driving pilings in the bay and river bottoms on which to hang the lines. Some bags fell off the lines when plastic clips imported from New Zealand broke. Other bags, heavy with algae growth, ripped apart. Oysters falling to the sandy bottom quickly became buried and suffocated.

"We basically had to redesign the whole system and retrofit it," said Judy, who took over as DNR's shellfish program director in early 1998.

An even more serious problem arose when DNR's stepped-up hatchery effort using Piney Point produced far more oysters than anticipated. The 14.5 million put in bags overwhelmed the three DNR employees assigned to tend the lines. "They were working 12- and 14-hour days," said Judy.

Judy ordered the project scaled back after he took over. An estimated 11 million juvenile oysters were dumped. While an effort was made to place the nickel-sized shellfish where they had the best chance of surviving, Judy acknowledged that many, if not most, wound up as snacks for blue crabs and skates.

DNR contracted with the watermen's association in 1998 to maintain the long-lines oysters. Officials say they wanted to use watermen to get them thinking about aquaculture as a way to supplement their traditional fishing activities. Participants were paid $10 an hour to sort the oysters and clean the algae off the bags every few weeks, but there were few takers.

"It's the most dirty, common, stinking work you've ever done in your life," said Simns, who tended lines in the Chester River. Watermen had to stand in waist- or chest-deep water to handle the bulky, algae-coated bags.

Observers say the long-lines technique didn't work in Maryland because the nutrient-rich waters of the Chesapeake stimulate algae growth, encasing the bags in shaggy green coats 4 and 5 inches thick in a few weeks. Watermen spent thousands of hours hauling the slimy bags out of the water and cleaning them off.

Willinsky proposed countering the algae problem by keeping oysters in floating trays made of a copper-nickel alloy. DNR paid nearly $10,000 to buy the metal, but the trays were never made. The metal sits at a stamping plant in Canada, Willinsky said recently, because of a dispute with state officials over how much he should be paid.

"Basically, given what we were dealing with, we had enormous success," Willinsky said. Though no longer involved with the long-lines project, he contended that it demonstrated oysters kept near the water's surface would grow faster than on the bottom.

But others involved in the project dispute that. More troubling, many of the oysters have begun to die from Dermo. Waterman William Pfeiffer, who has tended the Patuxent lines, said tests by the University of Maryland recently found the parasite in 80 percent of the oysters sampled.

"There were some bags I went through [in which] almost every oyster was dead," said Pfeiffer.

State officials had hoped to sell the oysters once they grew to about 3 inches in diameter. As recently as August, DNR proposed giving the watermen's association $2,000 to market the crop to restaurants and raw bars. With at least one restaurant indicating a willingness to pay 40 cents apiece, DNR estimated it could make $20,000 on those oysters big enough to sell.

In August, though, DNR officials dropped plans to sell them, declaring that the experiment had accomplished its objectives. Another factor, they acknowledged, was that rampaging parasites had reduced the crop.

"I don't think anybody thought upfront that we were going to grow oysters and make a lot of money," Judy said.

But Simns recalled discussing with DNR that the watermen and Willinsky could keep half of whatever they made selling the oysters. Simns said he rejected that plan, and is happier now to have the remaining oysters put in the bay where they might help restore the population by spawning.

Judy acknowledged the project's difficulties, but said it nevertheless succeeded in growing oysters. While acknowledging that some skeptics had predicted the New Zealand method wouldn't work, he insisted it was necessary to try the technique to find out.

He said DNR has no plans to finance any more efforts to grow oysters off the bottom.

Critics say that DNR's costly failure could prevent further study of a technique that may still have promise.

"No one thought the process through," said Robert Pfeiffer (no relation to William), former executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit group intent on restoring the bay's signature shellfish.

"The sad thing is, if you look at what we're going to be faced with this winter with Dermo, the money could have been better spent differently."

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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