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River Project Offers New Hope for Oysters, Researchers Say

Video from an underwater unmanned vehicle shows both the barren bottom of a Chesapeake Bay tributary, and then a large, thriving reef in Virginia's Great Wicomico River. Scientists say that a new technique has allowed them to create the reef, where the "smoke rings" blown out by oysters are a sign that they are filtering algae and dirt from the water. Video by Courtesy Science Magazine

On the bottom, Schulte said, the oysters would be like "a sick smoker in a smoke-filled bar." They would expend so much energy spitting out dirt that they would be too weak to fight off disease. But, in the higher spot, Schulte said, the oysters were "marathon runners taking a nice jog in the mountain air, and it does make them significantly healthier."

When the researchers visited the spot in 2007, they said they found up to 1,000 oysters per square meter and an entire ecosystem clustered around them. There were about 185 million oysters in total, a fifty-sixfold increase from before the experiment began. They said that the oysters on the reef seemed more resistant to disease and that the reef looked healthy this year.

"It was a never-ending, massive, thriving reef," said Rom Lipcius, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who worked on the project. "We were literally giddy."

These scientists said their success might be duplicated elsewhere if the new reefs were built similarly tall and located where water currents would bring in food.

But, in the two bay states, government scientists were not as enthusiastic. In Maryland, Department of Natural Resources official Michael Naylor said the cost of the Great Wicomico project -- at $3 million, it was more than $34,000 an acre -- would make it expensive to use on a wide scale.

And in Virginia, state official Jim Wesson said he believed that disease is likely to ravage the Great Wicomico. He said the only real solution would be for the bay's oysters to develop a natural immunity.

"I mean, that's evolution," said Wesson, of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "It's not short-term."

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