Public Works board OKs Asian oysters test in state waters

Permit allows putting cages with native, foreign bivalves in bay tributaries

October 30, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Seeking to revive a fishery in crisis, the state Board of Public Works approved a permit yesterday to introduce an Asian oyster species into Maryland waters for the first time.

The board granted University of Maryland professor Kennedy Paynter a license to install cages for about 6,000 sterile oysters - half native, half not - in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

The experiment is intended to help determine whether the Asian species can thrive in bay waters without harmful, unintended consequences.

The oyster experiment is a cautious early step toward realizing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s goal of replenishing the bay's oyster population, which has been ravaged by two diseases that affect the native species.

Christopher C. Judy, shellfish program director for the state Department of Natural Resources, said Maryland's bay waters yielded as much as 10 million to 15 million bushels of oysters annually during the 1880s.

Last year, the harvest dropped to 53,000 bushels, and this year's yield could be half that, he said. Three oyster packing houses remain in a state that had 58 in 1974, he said.

"This is a serious crisis," Judy told the board.

Ehrlich said the environmental case for restoring the oyster population is more compelling than the economic arguments. He noted the critical role oysters play in filtering the bay's water.

Paynter plans to study the growth and disease resistance of Asia's Suminoe oyster (Crassostrea ariakensis) compared with that of the American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) in the Severn, Patuxent and Choptank rivers. The UM professor could not be reached to comment on his plans.

The oysters in the experiment will be sterilized to prevent the Asian species from spreading in the bay before its effects can be studied, Judy said. They will be contained in 24 cages to prevent their becoming scattered in the natural environment.

Judy minimized the chances of anything going wrong. "It's a risk, but it's a minimal risk," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers must still approve the experiment, slated to run through November 2005, before the oysters can be introduced into the bay, Judy said.

Judy said the UM program - along with the experiments under way in Virginia - would contribute to the preparation of an environmental impact statement that must be completed before a decision is made on whether to attempt to populate the bay with fertile Asian oysters.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her organization supports the experiment.

"This is the type of research we do feel is important to do," Coble said. She said that while it is important to be "judicious and careful" when working with non-native species, the UM experiment appears to meet that standard.

The Ehrlich administration has focused on the potential of Asian oysters because of the dismal results scientists have achieved in protecting the native species from MSX and Dermo, two diseases that have devastated the oyster population since they appeared in the Chesapeake.

Judy said the Asian oyster has shown resistance to MSX and Dermo. He said the experiment will use stocks of the ariakensis oyster brought to Oregon more than 30 years ago, rather than using animals imported directly from overseas.

Virginia is in the fourth year of a similar trial in its part of the bay.

Starting with a 6,000-oyster experiment in 2000, that state's trial has expanded to almost 1 million mollusks this year.

One question scientists will attempt to answer is whether a healthy population of the Asian species would have an adverse effect on the native species.

"There's no indication from the West Coast that ariakensis is a threat or an invasive organism," Judy said.

The Asian oyster has passed at least one important test.

According to Judy, a Virginia marketing test found that the ariakensis is tasty and attractive to potential consumers.

"It has good meat yield. The oyster's plump," he said.

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