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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Fishery proposes largest trial yet of asian oysters

Posted to: Newport News News
By Scott Harper

The Virginia Seafood Council, a trade group, is proposing its biggest experiment with Asian oysters to date, asking to grow 1.3 million of the exotic species in the Chesapeake Bay and on the Eastern Shore, beginning June 1.

It would be the seventh experiment sponsored by the seafood council since 2000, and comes as Virginia and Maryland are struggling to restore native oyster populations in the Bay.

In addition to providing jobs, revenue and restaurant fare, oysters are key natural filters in the Bay's ecosystem.

Without them, water quality suffers from too much algae and sediments, which collectively are choking the Bay.

In controlled trials so far, the seafood council has determined that the Asian species - known as ariakensis or the Chinese oyster - does not succumb to the same diseases that have nearly wiped out native stocks in recent decades.

The Asian variety, originally from waters off China, Japan and Korea, is larger than the native type and grows to market size much quicker. Its taste, meanwhile, has proven comparable to the salty flair of Bay oysters.

This week, state regulators at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission agreed to vote on the new request following a public hearing next month in Newport News. The Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk also must approve the experiment.

"We are very determined to continue forward with this," said Frances Porter, executive director of the Virginia Seafood Council, based in Newport News. "It's good for our industry as we continue to develop our markets for the Asian oyster."

As proposed, the 1.3 million Chinese oysters would be grown in protective cages or bags at 13 sites in coastal waters. The animals would have to be certified as sexually sterile before they could be deployed in the water. They would have to be removed by June 1, 2009.

Two of the proposed sites are in Hampton Roads, including one in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach.

Cameron Chalmers, who started his own Lynnhaven oyster company, expects to grow about 100,000 of the Asian species on leased bottom in waters near First Landing State Park.

Chalmers has similarly raised non-natives the past two years at the same locale. He has sold them to an oyster shucking business in Gloucester.

"They grow almost twice as fast" as natives, Chalmers said. "And they don't need as much attention. They're pretty amazing."

Scientists and environmentalists, however, remain uncertain about the Asian oyster and its possible introduction in the Bay. They worry the foreign species might spawn a new disease, compete with other aquatic life, or spark some other unforeseen problem.

The Army Corps of Engineers is leading an environmental study of the Asian oyster and its potential impacts on the Bay. But the study has been delayed at least five times and may not be completed until late this year or next, according to the latest estimates.

"We've been expecting the results for two and a half years now, and once again, we still don't have them," said Porter, the seafood council head.

All of the Asian oysters used in the council experiments have been reared at a hatchery run by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a branch of the College of William and Mary.

The government requires the babies come from the hatchery, given its adherence to mandatory safeguards and quarantines, designed to keep the Asian oysters from somehow escaping into the wild, according to the institute.

The first batch of babies, deployed in 2000, did not come from Asia, but instead from adult oysters flown to Virginia from Oregon.

Chinese oysters arrived in Oregon several decades ago as part of experiments with non-native species in that state, wildlife officials said.

Scott Harper, (757) 446-2340,

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