Plug Is Pulled On Asian Oyster
Decision Halts Bay Experiment

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Asian oysters will not be allowed in the Chesapeake Bay, state and federal officials announced yesterday, seemingly ending a five-year flirtation with the idea that a Chinese bivalve could resurrect one of America's most famous shellfish grounds.

The decision, made by Maryland, Virginia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, means that the species Crassostrea ariakensis should disappear from the Chesapeake. About a million of the Asian oysters are in the water at experimental shellfish "farms" in Virginia, but those will come out in the next month, officials said.

But a fundamental problem remains unsolved. The Chesapeake needs an oyster species, both to filter its water and support watermen's communities. Now, it doesn't have much of one. The native oyster species is down to 1 percent of its historic peak population, decimated by overfishing and disease.

Yesterday, officials pledged to spend millions trying to bring it back. But they said the oyster population is unlikely to ever return to what it was.

"We cannot guarantee success," said Col. Dionysios Anninos, the Corps of Engineers official who oversaw the decision. "But we'll give it a hell of a go."

Yesterday's decision followed a five-year study of the Asian oyster that cost federal and state authorities $17 million. The idea was to base the decision on science instead of politics.

It didn't work.

The study could not solve the most important questions: If the Asian oyster were raised at controlled shellfish farms, what was the chance that it would escape and reproduce in the open water? And if it did, would it find a healthy niche in the ecosystem, as the smallmouth bass has in the Potomac River? Or would it become a threatening invasive species, a snakehead with a shell?

"The problem is, with all of this, that you don't really know until you do the experiment," said Roger Mann, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "Once you've done it, it's too late."

In recent months, Virginia officials argued that Asian oysters were worth the risk. Maryland officials argued that they weren't, and they were supported by federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, Virginia officials assented -- with a reservation. In the decision announced yesterday, the three parties agreed that they might take up the debate again if further research answers more questions about the Asian oyster's risks.

"One of the big risks in all of this is that the native [oyster]-only option will not succeed," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., the Virginia secretary of natural resources, in a phone interview yesterday afternoon. Because of that, Bryant said, "we didn't feel that [there] was a reason to slam the door shut" on the Asian oyster.

Yesterday's decision was cheered by environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. But it was greeted with disappointment in the seafood industry. Many in the business had hoped that the Asian oyster, thought to be resistant to the Chesapeake's oyster diseases, might bring back the bay's legendary oyster harvests.

In Norfolk, waterman Peter Nixon is raising 75,000 Asian oysters this year as part of Virginia's experiments. He said the oysters grew rapidly and tasted great cooked.

"I have to fight my wife for 'em when they're fried," Nixon said yesterday.

Nixon said he couldn't believe arguments that the Asian oyster might become a rapidly multiplying invader. If watermen could make money from them, Nixon said, the oysters would be caught before they spread.

"Do you think that watermen would be on it, like ducks on maggots?" Nixon said, adding that a rapid spread "isn't going to happen."

Now, the focus of oyster politics will shift to the bay's beleaguered native oyster. The track record isn't great. From 1994 to last year, authorities spent $58 million to bring back this species, paying for watermen to scrape mud off old oyster bars and for scientists to breed oyster babies in the lab. But those efforts floundered, and officials estimated that there were fewer oysters when they ended than when they began.

There are a few bright spots, including the Great Wicomico River, a small bay tributary at the end of Virginia's Northern Neck. There, scientists from Virginia and the Corps of Engineers used the strategy of building piles of oyster shell on the bottom and seeding them with tiny "spat" to produce a stunning number of oysters: 185 million, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The institute said that was almost as many oysters in one river as in all of Maryland's public oyster grounds.

But yesterday, officials said it would take a great deal of money to produce a general oyster comeback. They said it might take $50 million in government funding every year. In past years, the average has been about $5 million a year, although this year it might be about twice that amount.

"We can expect pockets of success" in the future, Anninos said in a conference call with reporters. "I'm not so confident that we can bring back the oyster baywide from what I see today."

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