- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Word that Virginia authorities are considering releasing more than 1 million nonnative Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay this summer has renewed calls in Maryland to move ahead with the disease-resistant species that some see as the only hope of reviving oysters in the Bay.

Asian oysters have shown promise in resisting diseases that have all but eliminated native oysters, but scientists are worried that experiments with the nonnative species could cause ecological harm.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission on Tuesday endorsed plans for growing 1.3 million of the Chinese oysters, which scientists call the ariakensis oyster. The Asian oysters would be sterilized to prevent reproduction, but some still worry about the consequences of placing millions of the new species in the Bay.

The region’s waters have been overrun by invasive species that were introduced because someone thought they would assist the native ecology. Though early tests by Maryland and Virginia show little danger of Asian oysters overrunning native species, the Virginia plan is under scrutiny.

“We are very concerned about yet another problem being created unknowingly. This species could be bad for the Bay, so it needs to have a careful evaluation,” said Mike Fritz, an environmental protection specialist for the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state partnership charged with overseeing Bay restoration efforts.

Maryland researchers are studying nonnative oysters at a lab on the Eastern Shore, but the state has not tried introducing Asian oysters on the scale proposed by Virginia. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and others still must sign off before the oysters could be released.

The Virginia Seafood Council was permitted to place 1 million or so of the Asian oysters last year, but is required to have all those oysters out of the water by June.

“This is not groundbreaking. This is kind of an incremental step forward,” said John M.R. Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Mr. Bull said the Asian oysters would be placed at several locations in Virginia waters and that “the odds are infinitesimal” that one of the oysters could reproduce. Mr. Bull said continuing experiments with Asian oysters are key.

“It is not an easy decision. This is not one that will be made lightly. But we need more information to know whether we go ahead or whether we need to step away from the plate,” he said.

Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the state needs to stop studying the question and speed introduction of the Asian oyster.

“We’re getting left behind” in Maryland, said Mr. Simns, who describes the Asian oyster as the best hope of restoring oysters to the Bay, where pollution, disease and overharvesting have nearly eliminated them.

“I’d love for it to be the native oyster that’s going to come back, but we’ve got to face it — it’s not,” Mr. Simns said.

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