Md. leery of Va. plan for bay oyster test


Scientists in Virginia want to test oysters from Asia in open waters of Chesapeake Bay as part of an effort to restore the state's decimated shellfish industry. Maryland officials are leery of the proposal, fearing it could loose another foreign species in the bay.

"We would support the research that might come out of it," says Carolyn Watson, an assistant secretary for natural resources in Maryland. "But it scares us to think that they may be moving out with an effort to put exotic oysters in the bay as opposed to restoring native oysters."

Virginia scientists say the project, an extension of earlier tests, would be tightly controlled to prevent those oysters from reproducing in the bay.

The oysters -- Crassostrea ariakensis -- have been genetically altered so that they can't reproduce, says Stan Allen, a geneticist running the aquaculture breeding program at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point. "It's the only palatable way to do it."

A number of non-native species have been introduced to Chesapeake Bay over the years by accident or for hunting and trapping or ornamental value, often upsetting the estuary's delicate balance and edging out native species for food and habitat.

The water chestnuts that choked a tributary of the Bird River in May were brought to the United States as ornamental plants early in the 20th century. Nutria, the large mammals that look like a cross between a beaver and a rat and have been chewing through Eastern Shore marshes, were imported from South America for fur production in the 1940s.

The veined rapa whelk, a snail native to the Sea of Japan, wreaked havoc on clams and oysters near Hampton Roads until VIMS put a bounty on the creatures and watermen began aggressively harvesting them.

Virginia officials say they have the whelk under control for now.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has scheduled a hearing March 28 in Newport News on the request by the state Seafood Council to test about 1,500 of the Asian oysters in scattered plots in the bay.

The council, comprising about 60 seafood packers and processors, has "a vision of restoring the native oyster [Crassostrea virginica]," but also is looking to the introduction of ariakensis as another source of income for its members, says Frances Porter, executive director.

"We're asking for the opportunity to do this commercial pilot project of introducing neutered oysters," she says. "We have been assured and reassured by the scientists that they won't reproduce in the bay."

The tests are part of Virginia's two-pronged effort to restore its moribund oyster industry, devastated in the past two decades by the diseases Dermo and MSX.

The state is spending $3 million to build oyster reefs in the mouth of the Rappahannock River and has directed VIMS to look into alternatives to the native oysters.

Scientists tested Pacific oysters -- Crassostrea gigas -- in 1996 without much success.

"It's an ocean species," says Allen. "It didn't like the warmer waters, the turbidity, the lower salinities of the bay."

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