Oyster stuffing

Our view : More and more agree, the Chesapeake Bay's native species deserves better

December 24, 2008

Opposition to a plan to introduce Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay is growing faster than you can say Crassostrea ariakensis. The latest skeptics to emerge from their shells include the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Chesapeake Bay Program's science advisory committee and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, were already on the record saying much the same thing: Maryland and Virginia should invest more time, money and effort in restoring the bay's native oyster species before pursuing such a risky strategy.

The appeal of going Asian is easy enough to understand. The Chesapeake's Eastern oyster population has been decimated over the past several decades, largely because of diseases, MSX and dermo, to which the Asian oyster appears to have greater resistance.

But bringing in any foreign species to the bay, even a fast-growing and disease-resistant oyster, is fraught with potential peril, particularly to the native oyster. Even if the Asian oysters are confined physically or biologically (made sterile so they couldn't breed in the wild, for instance), they could pose a threat if safeguards are inadequate. Are state officials willing to doom the species they've neglected so many years?

They shouldn't be. Neither Maryland nor Virginia has adequately pursued the strategies available to save the native oyster. The most notable would be to promote aquaculture - more specifically, to amend state laws to make oyster farms a safe private investment.

Most of Maryland's waters are wide open to watermen, and that has to change. To leverage private investment, oyster beds will have to be protected - and cultivators will need year-round access to them, even if that doesn't thrill nearby waterfront landowners.

State government has taken some actions to restore oysters, but the scale of its actions has been dwarfed by the scale of the problem. Scientists are attempting to breed the native oyster for greater disease resistance. Why not give that effort a chance?

The benefits of a revived oyster population are numerous - not the least of which is that oysters are filter feeders that can help remove excess nutrients, improve water clarity and foster vital submerged aquatic vegetation. For decades, it was oysters, not crabs, that Maryland seafood lovers prized. They are a tasty tradition that we should all be reluctant to let go - or replace.

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