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

October 03, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

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.

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