Chesapeake Bay scientists have proposed a string of permanent oyster sanctuaries on large reefs as part of a multimillion-dollar plan to revive the bay's oyster stock, which has been devastated in recent years by disease and overfishing.
The reefs would cover 10 percent of the bay's traditional oyster-bar acreage in parts of the bay that historically yielded large harvests of oysters. Reefs would be set aside nearby for commercial harvesting under the plan, approved by scientists from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
The scientists met at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) in Wachapreague, Va., in January and released their report this week. They have not, however, approached government officials with their plan or figured out how to pay for it.
"This is just the science part," said Eugene Burreson, a VIMS scientist who was chairman of the group. "We haven't had time yet to fully discuss the implementation."
Instituting the proposal would take several years, he said.
The scientists said the recovery plan should be seen as a way not only to sustain the oyster fishery but also to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters filter pollution from the water, improving water clarity and allowing the penetration of light critical for underwater vegetation. Their reefs provide habitat for themselves and other organisms.
The plan is a synthesis of operations already in place in Maryland and Virginia, said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and an organizer of the conference.
For years, Maryland has set aside sanctuaries, where oystering is forbidden and there are tight controls on oysters that have been infected by the diseases Dermo and MSX. Virginia has built large reefs and stocked them with genetically altered oysters resistant to the diseases.
Though watermen might balk at the concept, "we have to come to grips with establishing sanctuaries in perpetuity," he said.
Burreson conceded that scientists are unsure how many acres 10 percent of the historically productive bars would cover, but he said that it was a number "managers and industry members could support."