- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

SOLOMONS, Md. — On a damp, gray weekday morning on the Patuxent River, Harry Huseman is working hard for a few oysters.

Each pull of the giant, hydraulic-powered tongs dumps a mess of empty shells, tiny crabs and sand onto a flat, steel shelf. Mr. Huseman, 80, peers quickly over the pile and plucks out three or four good, regulation-size, 3-inch oysters.

After five hours of work, he has six bushelbaskets — $240 worth.

“I don’t think today, if I had to make payments on a house, I don’t think I could survive,” said Mr. Huseman, unloading his haul at the pier behind the small, brick home he owns just south of the St. Mary’s-Calvert County line. “I don’t recommend it for no young people, I can tell you that.”

Mr. Huseman figures there are just enough oysters left on this reef to make it worth his effort to harvest them a few more years. He and his fellow oystermen working the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are looking to the introduction of nonnative oysters to rescue their livelihoods.

Maryland is investing $1.7 million in the research of the hardy, fast-growing Crassostrea ariakensis, the oyster native to China that could bring bivalves back to the Chesapeake Bay.

It’s an unprecedented flurry of oyster research, conducted with the help of scientists on the far side of the Bay in Virginia, and it’s raising the hopes both of those who have barely succeeded — and those who have failed — to make a living at oystering.

But even as they fulfill their research contracts, scientists continue to sound the alarm that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s goal of introducing breeding ariakensis next year is too soon. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which ultimately would have the authority to make the introduction, aims to make a decision by February.

Research is raising more questions about whether ariakensis can survive the diseases Dermo and MSX. New challenges are cropping up, such as indications that ariakensis might be susceptible to invasions by tiny bristleworms that bore into their shells.

To allay concerns about the state’s timeline, DNR is making moves to establish that its decision will be objective.

At stake is an oyster fishery that last year pulled in its worst harvest ever, about 19,000 bushels. The previous record low harvest, set a year earlier, was 53,000 bushels. In the late 1800s, Chesapeake oystermen harvested more than 1 million pounds of healthy oysters every year.

Late last month, when researchers gathered at Horn Point Laboratory to offer updates on the status of their studies, they again voiced concerns that they won’t know enough about the parasites and diseases ariakensis could bring to the Bay. There are questions about the species’ ability to survive in the Bay’s unique ecosystem and concerns about whether it would crowd out what is left of the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica.

“At best, it could be a waste of time and money. At worst, it could make the situation much worse,” said Matthew Hare, a geneticist at the University of Maryland at College Park who specializes in oyster populations.

At a workshop late last year, specialists from across the country concluded that at least four more years of research is needed to fully assess the risks and benefits of introducing a new reproducing species. That timeline mirrors one set by the National Academy of Sciences in a report released last summer.

To address those worries, DNR is appointing a panel of six to 10 independent scientists to review the research early next year, said Pete Jensen, DNR’s oyster czar and an associate deputy secretary of the agency. Panel members, some of whom would be out-of-state researchers who have not been chosen, will tell environmental officials the specific risks they face by making a decision early next year, Mr. Jensen said.

He and the governor’s office have stressed that the agency won’t go ahead with the introduction if it isn’t deemed safe. Mr. Jensen hopes the panel can determine whether the risks are “unacceptable” if the state goes ahead with ariakensis.

“This is a strategy for making a decision; this is not a decision,” Mr. Jensen said. “Let’s move to a point where we can make a decision. In early 2005, we’ll be at that point.”

Mr. Jensen also stresses other options researchers are investigating. DNR might decide, for example, to introduce ariakensis that have been bred to be sterile — to reduce the risk of spreading a species that could breed beyond control and dominate the ecosystem. Another option is to use ariakensis in a contained aquaculture system, establishing a put-and-take oyster fishery.

An experiment the panel likely will examine closely is one run by Kennedy Paynter of the university system’s Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences graduate program. Mr. Paynter dropped about 5,000 ariakensis, bred to be as sterile as possible, in underwater cages along the Choptank, Patuxent and Severn rivers, as well as the York River in Virginia.

There are so many variables to oyster research that it may not be possible to decide early next year whether ariakensis are safe — or whether they are the fishery gold mine that some watermen hope, Mr. Paynter said.

Mr. Paynter’s oysters in the Choptank, the Patuxent and the York, for example, are showing early signs they are susceptible to polydora, a bristleworm that drills through their thick shells and could make them less appetizing and therefore less marketable.

Plus, a potential deal-breaker for ariakensis would be if they are susceptible to Dermo and MSX, the diseases that, along with overharvesting, have emptied the Chesapeake of its native oysters.

“You can draw some conclusions” by early 2005, Mr. Paynter said, “but we can’t say right now if ariakensis are more or less resistant to Dermo or MSX because they haven’t been in the water a long enough period.”

The issue threatens to drive a deeper divide between the Chesapeake Bay research community and watermen, who hold a powerful lobby with Maryland lawmakers and will continue to press for a new oyster.

The two groups, however, traditionally have been able to disagree on an issue while they work together on others, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Bill Goldsborough.

Watermen, while eager for an oyster cure, also are trusting researchers to find the best track for the Bay, Mr. Huseman said. “I don’t think they want to jump in head over heels. I think they’re being very careful,” he said.

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