Rash on oysters

March 02, 2003

A REVIVAL OF the oyster beds in the Chesapeake would be good for the bay, good for the watermen who make a living off the bay, and good for the millions of people who enjoy the delicacies of the bay. With the oyster business now nearly wiped out by the diseases MSX and dermo, it's understandable that drastic measures might seem in order.

But Virginia's plan to introduce a million Asian oysters this June - even under controlled conditions - is a desperate step that the state is foolishly hurrying into. Two scientific studies are pending - including a $300,000 effort by the National Academy of Sciences that's due this summer - yet the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has decided it can't wait to learn the results. Instead, it is short-circuiting a sensible decision-making process and rushing the little mollusks into the water, in the hopes that nothing much will go wrong.

Maryland raised doubts but acquiesced - to a plan that poses a risk to the entire bay, and possibly to the whole Eastern seaboard.

The Asian oyster - Crassostrea ariakensis - has a similar flavor to the native oyster but appears to be much hardier in the face of disease. Virginia, where the devastation of the oyster beds has been more pronounced than in Maryland, has been pushing for some time to experiment with its introduction. Maryland has always resisted, but with a disastrous harvest this year, and with assurances from Virginia that it will control the experiment, the will to resist crumbled.

That is unfortunate.

It's not that the Asian oyster is a bad idea. It might even prove one day to be the salvation of the Chesapeake oyster culture. And yes, time is running out. But to introduce a foreign species into the bay without adequate preparation is asking for trouble.

Virginia plans to use neutered oysters, kept in mesh bags to prevent their dispersal. But the neutering process is not failsafe and there is a real possibility that Asian oysters could proliferate in the wild.

Is there a risk that the native species could be pushed to oblivion? Yes. Is there a risk of previously unknown viruses finding a welcome habitat in the bay, courtesy of Asian oysters? Not a big one, but yes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be asking the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit for the project, or, failing that, to halve the amount of time the Asian oysters can remain in the water. The Army should listen.

Studying the potential impact of Asian oysters is an excellent idea. Simply tossing them into the bay with fingers crossed is nothing short of reckless.

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