Virginia officials decided yesterday to put 1 million Asian oysters in 10 locations in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast this summer in a test to determine whether the foreign shellfish can thrive and please consumers in place of disease-ravaged native oysters.
In approving the seafood industry study, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission insisted on multiple safeguards against the Asian oysters reproducing and potentially wreaking ecological havoc.
But a Maryland spokesman said the precautions imposed on the two-year study do not go as far as state officials would like.
And an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said his agency would seek to block a federal permit the project needs.
"I have great empathy for watermen," said Mike Slattery of the federal wildlife service.
But he said the service could not "support bringing another species in from afar to replace one we have managed to the brink of extinction."
The Virginia seafood industry hopes the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, can supplant the native Eastern oyster in restaurants and markets.
The native of China looks and tastes the same, and earlier small-scale tests have shown it grows faster and resists the two diseases that have ravaged the Chesapeake's oysters for the past 15 years.
Maryland watermen, suffering through what bodes to be a record-low oyster harvest this winter, also have expressed interest in studying the Asian oyster's suitability in this state.
The Virginia Seafood Council, an industry group, plans to contract with local oyster growers to raise hatchery-produced Asian oysters in eight locations in the lower bay and at two sites along the Atlantic Coast.
The shellfish will be genetically altered to be sterile, and they will be repeatedly checked by state scientists to weed out any that might reproduce.
All will be placed in plastic mesh bags, cages or trays for easy retrieval.
But the commission's decision to let the Asian oysters stay in the water until April 2005 bothers some out-of-state scientists, who urged the study be halted by June 1, 2004, before any oysters can grow large enough to spawn.
The length of the Virginia study "has the potential to increase the risk" that the Asian oysters could be the latest alien species to invade the bay with unforeseen consequences, said John Surrick, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Virginia officials argued that the study is safe -- and the odds remote of unintentionally releasing the Asian oysters into the wild.
"There will be considerable monitoring and assessments done throughout the project to ensure the risks are minimal," said Jack Travelstead, fisheries chief for the Virginia commission.
The project still needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to place the oyster bags or cages in the water.
The corps district office in Norfolk, Va., has indicated it plans to approve the study, but the wildlife service and the National Marine Fisheries Commission have said they will appeal that decision to the corps headquarters in Washington.
That appeal could take at least two months to resolve, said Peter Kube, a corps environmental scientist.