Official favors sterile Asian oyster bay test

March 21, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

A key federal official has come down in favor of raising relatively small batches of sterile Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay while expanding government efforts to restore the bay's native oysters. But he said yesterday that he will continue talks with Maryland and Virginia to try to reach a consensus on a government policy for bringing back the depleted shellfish.

Col. Dionysios Anninos, commander of the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said a five-year study by the two states and the federal government had failed to resolve concerns about the risks of allowing large-scale farming of the non-native oyster.

"I still feel in my heart that there is minimum risk," Anninos said, but he added that he believes more studies should be done growing sterile Asian oysters in the bay to address scientists' contentions that they may still reproduce and spread.

Virginia's seafood industry has pressed to go ahead with full-scale cultivation of the Asian oysters, arguing that they are the best option for increasing the commercial harvest since native oysters have been devastated by diseases. Maryland, however, has pushed for sticking with the native species, as have other federal agencies and environmental groups

Critics say there is a risk of reproduction even in raising sterilized oysters - and that the foreign species could crowd out native oysters or cause other environmental problems if it took hold and spread.

A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said the state has yet to take a formal position on the use of non-native oysters. In Maryland, however, the O'Malley administration firmly favors focusing on restoring the native oyster and opposes any use of non-native species in the bay, said Frank Dawson, assistant natural resources secretary.

The Army Corps of Engineers' position is key because the agency issues permits for growing oysters on the bay bottom or in the water. Other federal agencies might challenge those approvals, seeking a review by higher-level officials in the Obama administration.

The Virginia Seafood Council has requested a permit from the Army Corps to raise a total of 1 million Asian oysters in 10 locations in the lower bay. The oysters would be bred to be sterile, though scientists have said even in small numbers, a few may be able to reproduce.

A.J. Erskine, president of the council, said the non-native oysters would be closely monitored to see if any do produce young. The Army has approved several similar "field trials" in years past, but they have been opposed as too risky by federal environmental agencies and environmental groups.

Environmental advocates criticized the Army official's stance. William Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it a "ruse" meant to get around objections to cultivation of Asian oysters in the bay. Any further research with non-native species should be done in a laboratory, not in open water, he argued.

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