- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

NORFOLK (AP) The head of Virginia's effort to restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay, a longtime champion of building artificial oyster beds for that purpose, now says those beds aren't working and Asian oysters should be introduced instead.
Jim Wesson, director of oyster restoration for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said many of the reefs built over the past 10 years are crumbling and barren, and diseases are killing many of the oysters transplanted to them.
"There's probably less oysters in the Bay today than when we started in '93" to build the reefs, Mr. Wesson told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.
Mr. Wesson believes the Suminoe oyster, also known as the Chinese oyster, offers the best chance for oyster populations in the Bay to rebuild. In limited tests, Mr. Wesson said the Suminoe appears disease-resistant and has grown larger and faster than native species, but it looks and tastes similar, the newspaper reported yesterday.
Some groups involved in the oyster-restocking effort, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, disagree with Mr. Wesson's assessment. Those groups continue to support the reef-building program, which recently has drawn additional funding from federal and state governments.
Federal agencies and Congress have indicated support for a 10-year campaign to increase native oysters tenfold through artificial reefs and restocking. Maryland has offered to spend $25 million and the federal government, $50 million.
Rob Brumbaugh, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said, "Anyone who thinks these Asian oysters are going to be some type of silver bullet is going to be sorely disappointed. We're talking about restoring a fishery that's been in decline for decades. There's no magic solution to that.
"We're just not to the point where we should give up on our native oyster," Mr. Brumbaugh added.
On the other hand, some influential people in the oyster industry support Mr. Wesson's view.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Seafood Council proposed growing 1 million sterilized Asian oysters in protective cages. The council's members seafood packers and processors offered to pay for the experiment.
The trade group dropped the idea after scientists and environmentalists objected that the foreign species might spawn an unforeseen virus, damage the Bay's ecosystem or slow popular momentum for restoring native bivalves.
Several waterfront counties on the Northern Neck peninsula, where shucking houses once dominated the local economy, urged unregulated use of the Asian oyster this year but have settled for a compromise.
In Richmond this past spring, state lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution giving researchers three years to prove that the nonnative species is really dangerous. If no such proof emerges, Asian oyster farming may begin.
Mr. Wesson said he still believes man-made oyster reefs are beneficial because they attract fish and provide habitat for other aquatic life.
However, he suspects that the Asian breed is better suited for the Chesapeake Bay's present conditions, and that the species could rejuvenate Virginia's oyster trade faster.
Seafood merchants and processors agree. They also complain that the Asian oyster is being unfairly portrayed as dangerous. And they say environmentalists and government agencies that still support the reef-building effort are just protecting a feel-good program that continues to bring them money and acclaim.
Kellum Seafood Co. in Weems, a Northern Neck town, has grown several thousand sterile Asian oysters in the Rappahannock River over the past three years. Owner Tommy Kellum said the oysters reached market size, or 3 inches, in less than a year. Native oysters generally take two to three years to get as big, and are prone to die off from disease before reaching that size.
"We finally have an animal to turn things around, but we're still hung up, still delayed," he said. "It's a real tragedy. And frankly, I'm just about fed up with the whole thing."

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