- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2002

ANNAPOLIS (AP) They are big, disease resistant and have a foreign accent. These are not your father's bivalves.
Crassostrea ariakensis, an Asian relative of the Chesapeake Bay's native oyster, is the subject of an ongoing debate over whether to transplant the Asian import to help revive the bay's struggling oyster population.
Experiments have shown the Asian oysters grow faster and are tougher than their native counterpart. That has led to calls by Virginia seafood industry officials to move past the experimental stage and increase the number currently being grown in the bay from 60,000 to 1 million.
"If we don't take a risk and move on these oysters that will survive in this Chesapeake Bay, then we'll lose the oyster industry that's there," Lake Cowart, a Virginia seafood processor, said at a Chesapeake Bay Commission meeting last Thursday.
But some Maryland officials, environmentalists and researchers have their qualms. The say a nonnative species could upset the bay's delicate ecological balance, and are calling for more and better research first.
The advisory commission heard from scientists, processors and watermen from both states, then went to a nearby restaurant for a taste test.
The results? The local oyster, Crassostrea virginica, won by a two-to-one margin.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences has been experimenting with nonnative oysters for about four years. Tests show ariakensis has thrived, growing faster and shrugging off Dermo and MSX, diseases that have badly afflicted local oysters in recent years.
Virginia just had its worst-ever single-season harvest. The situation may be even more dire in Maryland, where officials predict the 2001-2002 harvest will be only half the already feeble 347,968 bushels produced last year.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, is a backer of the Asian oyster project.
"We need to recognize that in other countries, the only way they have an oyster industry is that they introduced nonnative oysters," Mr. Simns says. "We don't want to take the risk of not doing something."
Federal agencies and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are wary, however. They worry that funding ariakensis research would hinder efforts to restore the native oyster population.
"If we send the signal we're looking at something else, it could have an impact on our ability to get funds, public and private," for native oyster restoration, Carin Bisland, of the bay program, says.
Nonnative species have historically altered the bay's ecological balance, often edging out native species. Will this be the case with the Asian oysters? It's a tough call, experts say.
"The environments are so complex, you can't predict what might happen," says Gene Burreson of the VIMS team. "It could introduce another disease, it could displace the native oyster. There are things you can't predict. One thing we've learned worldwide is it's a real crap-shoot to introduce a nonnative species, and it could be real bad."

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