- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

While Maryland environmental officials undertake a highly publicized effort to scatter breeding oysters from Asia into the ailing Chesapeake Bay, another nonnative oyster program is quietly winning permission to move ahead.

Biologists at the University of Maryland at College Park hope to drop Asian oysters into three sites in Maryland’s portion of the Bay by spring.

The 3,900 mollusks to be deployed in the state, though, are lab bred and sterile. They likely will be the first nonnatives to be introduced to the Bay.

However, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) proposal is attracting more attention.

DNR Secretary Ron Franks has said his department is accelerating studies for an environmental impact statement that could be completed within a year — a timeline that alarms environmentalists. If state scientists deem Asian oysters safe, the Bay could be home to breeding nonnatives a year from now, he said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration sees the foreign oysters as the Bay’s last, best chance for oyster restoration. The giant clusters of mollusks that once filtered bay water and hosted their own ecosystems have for the most part disappeared, devastated by over-harvesting and disease.

The university’s experiments, run by Kennedy Paynter of the Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences graduate program, take a different approach. His oysters, being raised in laboratories at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, are bred with an odd number of chromosomes to render them as sterile as possible.

There is a danger the oysters could regain the ability to breed as they age, Mr. Paynter said, but VIMS’ precautions with its brood stock are minimizing risks. And neglecting to restore oyster habitats is more dangerous for the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

“There’s more risk in not knowing about a potential danger than the risk associated with learning of a potential danger,” Mr. Paynter said.

His program calls for dropping the VIMS oysters, contained in cages, into the Choptank, Patuxent and Severn rivers, as well as the York River in Virginia. When the experiment is over, the cages would be picked up, leaving no oysters behind. In all, 5,200 Asian oysters would be monitored.

The VIMS oysters are a generation removed from the Crassostrea ariakensis native to China, another step to guard the shellfish from bringing in foreign diseases.

Still, the idea of bringing oysters from afar into the Chesapeake is drawing some resistance.

Officials in Anne Arundel County, home of the Severn site, oppose the project. They fear the new oysters could become invasive, crowding out the native Crassostrea virginica and dominating the Bay’s ecosystem.


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