Alien oysters

April 09, 2002

THIS YEAR'S CHESAPEAKE oyster harvest was spectacularly bad. It was the second worst on record, and it marked the 15th year since Maryland's oyster stocks first collapsed.

Official Maryland policy is to foster a tenfold increase in the bay's oyster population, but this year the numbers just kept heading downward. Because of the drought the bay became more salty, and because of the salt two particularly nasty oyster parasites flourished. This year's haul of oysters in Maryland amounted to 120,000 bushels, barely a third of last year's miserable total.

For some time now, Virginia, which has been hit even harder than Maryland, has been pushing for the introduction of an Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, which appears to be resistant to the two parasites. Maryland has correctly urged extreme caution. Asian oysters might bring unsuspected parasites with them, or they might flourish to such an extent that they would drive the bay's own native oyster population into extinction - but that's assuming we don't do it ourselves first.

It's important, in fact, to recognize there can be benefits from transplanting a species. American grapes saved French vineyards from a 19th century blight. American bread depends on Old World wheat..

Maryland officials are still right to insist that a thorough study of the potential consequences be conducted before the Asian oysters can be introduced. But the disaster that has afflicted the bay convinces us that that study should proceed expeditiously.

In an ideal world, the Chesapeake could be restored to the way it was when Europeans first arrived 400 years ago, with monumental oyster reefs, luxurious grasses and crystalline water. The introduction of a foreign species would upset that ideal. But if we accept that the ideal is impossible and that the bay will forever be a managed resource - an aquatic farmland - then Asian oysters could prove to be a welcome and pertinent addition.

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