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Old oyster offers hope for species in Chesapeake

Mike Deal shows off the unusually large oyster that he pulled out of the Rappahannock River.
Mike Deal shows off the unusually large oyster that he pulled out of the Rappahannock River. (Pamela A. D'angelo)

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Monday, November 15, 2010; 6:25 PM

Among the oysters that Mike Deal, above, pulled out of the Rappahannock River and onto the deck of the Brenda Kay one morning in late October, one stood out: It was nine inches long, dwarfing the three- to four-inchers all around it. Deal said it was the largest oyster he had seen in his 30 years as a waterman.

Oysters are struggling to survive in the Chesapeake Bay's polluted waters and tributaries such as the Rappahannock, where oyster diseases and a history of over-harvesting have depleted wild stocks to 1 percent of what they were a century ago. As a result, larger and older oysters are rare.

Jim Wesson, who heads the Conservation and Replenishment Department of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said it was a feat for a wild oyster to survive and grow this large in "this day and time." Russell Burke, a marine conservation biologist who studies oysters, estimated this mollusk's age at seven to nine years. "I believe that this Rappahannock oyster may be the largest natural oyster pulled from the Rappahannock River since before MSX [a parasitic disease] ravaged the bay in the early 1960s," he said. "Hopefully this is the beginning of a wonderful new trend. "

The giant oyster, which Burke named Hannah for its Rappahannock origin, was on display at the Urbanna Oyster Festival this month and is getting a new home on a sanctuary reef in Virginia.

- Pamela A. D'Angelo


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