Watermen look at results of Va. oyster experiments

March 30, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland's watermen are looking to Virginia's experiments with Asian oysters to help revive their own flagging shellfish industry, and making environmentalists and Maryland officials a little nervous, fearing the effects of another foreign species in the bay.

Scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences began testing the oysters, which have been genetically altered so they can't reproduce, in open bay waters a year ago. Now, the Maryland watermen have invited the scientists to talk about what they have learned at a meeting tonight at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis. And they're bringing along some samples for tasting.

"We're very cautious about bringing anything foreign into the bay," said Watermen's Association President Larry Simns. "But we don't want to go around with blinders on, either. We want to see what's out there."

Watermen have been hurt by declining crab and oyster harvests over the past 10 years, and they are looking for help. Virginia's oyster fishery was particularly hard hit by the diseases Dermo and MSX, and scientists have been experimenting with foreign oysters in hopes of restoring the fishery. The species -- Crassostrea ariakensis -- "has a lot of promise for the bay," said Stan Allen, a geneticist involved in VIMS' tests. They grow faster than the native species -- Crassostrea virginica -- they are more resistant to disease, and they have "held their own in taste tests."

But Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, worries there are "questions of the impact the oysters would have ecologically in the system, whether there would be unintended consequences."

A number of non-native species have been introduced to the bay over the years for a variety of reasons, often upsetting the estuary's delicate balance and edging out native species for food and habitat.

Goldsborough said the foundation is "unequivocally opposed to the introduction of exotic species into the bay," but it also supports cleaning up the bay. Oysters are integral to the bay's ecology because they filter pollutants, which improves water clarity and allows crucial sunlight to reach underwater plants.

"Our minds can be changed," he said.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, however, remain opposed to introducing foreign oysters into the bay.

"We're willing to consider them in a closed, aquaculture system where there is no exchange of water with the bay," said Eric Schwaab, head of fisheries at DNR. "We're not only concerned about the impact the non-native species would have, but also about whatever other microorganisms they might be carrying. We're still focused on the restoration of the native oyster."

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