- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

BALTIMORE (AP) | After five years of study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and officials from Maryland and Virginia decided against introducing Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, saying Monday the bivalves pose too great a risk to the Bay's fragile ecosystem.

Instead, the two states and the federal government will try to bolster efforts to restore the Bay's native oyster population. But officials cautioned the effort will be expensive, and there's no guarantee of broad success.

“We can expect pockets of successes in various tributaries of the Bay,” said Col. Dionysios Anninos, head of the Corps' Norfolk district. “I'm not so confident that we can bring back the oyster Bay-wide.”

The Asian oyster has been touted by watermen as a fast-growing and disease-resistant alternative to the native oyster, but questions remain about what would happen to native oysters if the nonnative species began to reproduce.

There is no guarantee sterile Asian oysters would remain sterile if introduced in large quantities, and some environmentalists and federal scientists fear the foreign oysters could overtake the native species.

“The use of nonnative oysters in the Chesapeake Bay… poses unpredictable ecological risk,” Col. Anninos said.

Environmental groups praised Monday's decision. The two states and the corps “have correctly recognized the dangers that nonnative oysters pose as well as the enormous potential for restoration of the native population,” said Roy Hoagland, a vice president at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The situation for the native oyster remains dire. The oyster population in the Chesapeake, which takes its name from the Algonquin word for “great shellfish bay,” is estimated to be less than 1 percent of its size during the 19th century. The bivalves have been ravaged by overfishing, pollution, destruction of habitat and, most recently, disease.

Oysters are viewed as a key species for Bay health because they act as a filter, improving water quality.

Efforts by states to replenish the native population have shown modest success so far, officials said Monday.

Native oysters are being grown on farms, some wild oysters have shown increasing tolerance to diseases, and native oyster reefs have been established on two rivers in Virginia.

“Achieving pockets of success is not something I would call a broad ecological success, nor a broad economic success,” said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources. “I remain unconvinced that we could have extraordinary success Bay-wide. I pray that I'm wrong.”

Mr. Bryant estimated that it would take $50 million a year for 10 years to make significant headway with native oyster restoration. An average of $5 million has been spent annually over the past 15 years, said John R. Griffin, Maryland's secretary of natural resources.

Combined, the two states and the federal government are spending more than $10 million this year, and both states have applied for millions more in economic stimulus funds.

Meanwhile, the five-year environmental impact study on Asian oysters cost about $17 million, Mr. Bryant said.

For the past six years, sterile Asian oysters have been grown on farms in Bay tributaries in Virginia. About 1 million of the bivalves were planted each of the past three years, and all that remain of this year's crop will be harvested by June 1, said Jack Travelstead, Virginia's fisheries chief.

The risk to the native population from those oyster farms is negligible, officials said. But “we are not ready for a commercial-scale trial of the Asian oysters,” Mr. Bryant said.

Research on the Asian oyster should continue, Col. Anninos said, and the results of that research could “do one of two things: shut the door completely or allow the door to be open ever so slightly” for any future introduction of the nonnative oyster.

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