Plug Is Pulled On Asian Oyster

Decision Halts Bay Experiment

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; Page B01

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.

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