Virginia to test Asian oysters in the bay

Proposal is part of effort to restore shellfish industry

March 30, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Virginia fisheries regulators have approved unanimously a plan to test Asian oysters in the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay as part of an effort to restore the state's shellfish industry decimated by the diseases Dermo and MSX.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted Tuesday after hearing objections from Maryland and Delaware scientists who said they feared the introduction of non-native species in the bay.

A number of non-native species have been introduced to Chesapeake Bay over the years, by accident or for hunting, 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 in the early 20th century. Nutria, the ratlike mammals that have been chewing their way through Eastern Shore marshes, were imported from South America for their fur in the 1940s.

But scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said their project is to be tightly controlled. The oysters have been genetically altered so they can't reproduce, and scientists are to monitor them to make sure they don't revert.

In tests, conducted without incident, the Asian oysters survived better than bay oysters.

Virginia's Seafood Council, comprising about 60 seafood packers and processors, asked the commission for the tests in hopes of finding another source of income for its members.

The tests are part of a two-pronged effort to restore a moribund oyster industry. Virginia also is spending $3 million to build oyster reefs in the mouth of the Rappahannock River and has directed the marine institute to look into alternatives to the native oyster.

In 1996, scientists tested Pacific oysters in a tributary with little success. Asian oysters are considered better suited for the bay.

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