Official: Asian Oyster Plan Needs Still More Study

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009; 11:35 AM

After five years of study and months more of deliberation, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official has made a decision about whether to allow Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay -- and that decision is that the issue needs more study.

Col. Dionysios Anninos, who heads the Corps' Norfolk District, had become the swing vote in a triumvirate of officials making one of the most charged decisions in recent Chesapeake history. A Virginia official was for introducing the oyster Crassostrea ariakensis into the bay, at least in controlled shellfish "farms." A Maryland official was against it.

In a memo sent out last night, Anninos seemed to split the difference. He wrote that he supported focusing most of the region's efforts on restoring the Chesapeake's native oysters, which have been decimated by historic over-fishing, polluted water, and a pair of shellfish diseases.

But Anninos said he would allow experiments with the Asian oyster to continue, with 1 to 1.5 million oysters permitted among farms. Anninos said that these oysters must be of a special variety that is far less likely to reproduce. Now, the state of Virginia has about 1 million such oysters in the water at various experimental farms.

Anninos wrote that these oysters could be used to answer a question that was still open after a years-long federal study process: How likely is it that these near-sterile oysters could regain some fertility, and baby oysters could be swept into the open waters of the Chesapeake?

"As the uncertainty questions are answered, this may result in disbanding this strategy completely or expanding it," Anninos wrote. He wrote that a "supplemental" environmental impact statement would be completed with the results of this continued testing.

The memo was provided to The Washington Post by a source close to the decision-making process. Reached by phone this morning, Anninos said he could not comment until he had spoken to other officials later today: "I still have not talked with all the federal partners."

Kim Coble, of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the decision was unwelcome. She said that research indicates that, eventually, the Asian oysters in farms will reproduce -- and then the oysters will be loose in the bay, the same as if fertile oysters had simply been dumped over the side.

Both environmentalists and federal scientists have expressed concerns about this risk. They say they're uncertain if the Asian oyster, which grows fast and is believed resistant to the Chesapeake diseases, will harm the native oysters that the bay's ecosystem was built on.

"We have to apply the precautionary principle," Coble said. "The risks are too high. So until we can be certain that it won't result in a de-facto introduction . . . then we shouldn't proceed in that direction."

Maryland and Virginia officials could not be immediately reached for comment. Anninos has said previously that he would push for all three parties to agree on a single decision, but if they continue to disagree, then separate decisions could be issued.

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