Chesapeake oyster stew

Our view : The Asian oyster plan set aside, it's time to invest in the real thing

April 08, 2009

Count the Chesapeake Bay oyster down, but not out. The decision by Maryland, Virginia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to further experiment with Asian oysters in local waters means a potential threat to the native species has been withdrawn - at least for now.

This is not exactly a cause for celebration. It means only that the authorities came to their senses and realized that scientists could offer no iron-clad guarantee that Crassostrea ariakensis, if introduced into the bay, would not threaten native bivalves. Caution is always warranted when it comes to introducing species that aren't native to an ecosystem. The bay has been victimized often enough by invasive organisms, from rat-like nutria to phragmites replacing native marsh grasses. What if safeguards had not proved adequate?

But as state and federal officials also noted, the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population remains in peril. A proposal to spend 10 times current efforts over the next decade on restoring the species is clearly justified, particularly if the federal government is willing to commit $30 million toward the effort (much of it stimulus money), as Maryland and Virginia officials are seeking.

Oysters are more than a Thanksgiving comfort food or even a Chesapeake icon. They are natural filter feeders removing excess nutrients from the water - as much as 133 million pounds of nitrogen annually when the species was at its peak. But today, oysters are at less than 1 percent of their peak population. They no longer can be relied upon to be self-sustaining. If efforts to improve bay water quality are to succeed, a vastly larger oyster population must be part of the equation.

Efforts will have to be carefully targeted so that important oyster bars - those where successful breeding is most likely to take place - are not only replenished but held in reserve. The future of the commercial fishery must be in aquaculture, where watermen would put more oysters in the water, not merely take them out.

In Annapolis, lawmakers appear ready to approve Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to lease more bay bottom to shellfish farming. Now that the distraction of Asian oysters has been set aside, it's time to get serious about propagating the native variety.

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