- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

GLOUCESTER POINT, Va. (AP) An aquaculture program in Virginia is working toward increasing the oyster population tenfold in five years to help make native species as commercially viable as foreign imports.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation plans to eventually seed about 1 million oysters on artificial reefs this year, the second year for such a planting.
This year's oysters are about two months ahead of schedule.
Last year at this time, the oysters measured about 1 inch. This year, they're about 2 inches, said Tommy Leggett, manager of the Virginia Oyster Aquaculture Program.
The quicker growth rate, foundation officials said, means that the native shellfish can grow to commercial size nearly as fast as a non-native species that's performed better in studies.
The Asian cousin to Virginia's natural oyster has shown itself to be bigger and more disease-resistant. Using aquaculture techniques, Asian species can grow to commercial size in four to six months. The work shows that the native species takes about six to seven months.
"There's aquaculture potential with the native oyster, for sure," Mr. Leggett said.
Virginia seafood industry officials have urged regulators to increase the number of non-native oysters being grown in the Bay, partly because of their faster growth.
But environmentalists and researchers worry that non-native species could upset the Bay's ecology. That spawned the foundation's aquaculture work, a big part of which is the organization's oyster farm in Gloucester County's Sarah Creek, near the mouth of the York River.
The oysters are planted in the creek, then transplanted to the reefs. Last year, 1.3 million "seed" oysters were planted.
That was the first time the foundation used a floating "upweller" system with the oysters before planting them, essentially force-feeding the oysters by pumping up to 100 gallons of water over them every minute. Oysters feed on tiny plants called phytoplankton, filtering water in the process.
Technology alone didn't make the oysters grow. Drier weather also increased salinity in rivers, which also helped, said Rob Brumbaugh, Chesapeake Bay Foundation fisheries scientist.
"Here with the farm, the higher salinity gave us a growth spurt."
The next phase will be to move the oysters to reefs in the Great Wicomico and Piankatank rivers. The move is expected to take place at the end of March or early April.


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