More than 1 million sterile Asian oysters may be heading to the Chesapeake Bay, as Virginia moved closer this week to approving its largest study yet on the foreign species.
The Virginia Seafood Council, which has conducted smaller experiments on the Asian oyster since 2000, has asked for state approval to put 1.3 million oysters in Virginia's portion of the bay and its tributaries. The oysters would be contained in mesh bags and secure cages. Researchers want to determine whether the oysters, also known as Crassostrea ariakensis, would be a suitable crop for aquaculture.
On Tuesday, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates Virginia's oyster industry, endorsed the plan. It still requires further state approval and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the oysters could go into the water.
But several federal agencies and environmentalists have objections to the experiment. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote to the Corps expressing their concerns that the Asian oysters, though sterile now, could revert to a reproducing population.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had been supportive of previous Asian oyster field trials, opposes the experiment this time. It wants to see the results of a major, multiyear environmental study of the species by the Corps. That is expected in June.
The Asian oyster research has been controversial since it began nearly a decade ago.
Watermen were excited about the species because it was thought to be resistant to the diseases that have devastated the native oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia was comfortable with sterile oysters, but expressed concern about introducing a reproductive population.
In Maryland, though, the Ehrlich administration pushed to get a reproducing Asian oyster in the bay in just a few years - a pace that alarmed scientists, federal officials and officials in neighboring states.
Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley called the introduction of the foreign species "a scary prospect" but has said he would wait for the results of the Corps study before reaching any conclusions.
Peter Kube, a Corps scientist overseeing the council trials, said its experiments are not connected to the larger study. He said private money is funding the council, which is looking at the oyster's marketability and shelf-life.
"We have issued the permit in the past, and we're looking over the objections to see if there's anything new" that would cause his agency to deny it this year, Kube said.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has been providing the sterile oysters. Roger Mann, the institute's research director, said there is a tiny risk the oysters will revert to a reproducing population. He told the commission he would be willing to "bet my house" that the risk was no greater than 1 in 10,000.
"Never, never in my 30-plus years of being associated with the commercial industry have I ever seen such remarkable impositions put on a group that's actually growing something," Mann said.