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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Three Methods Vie to Restore Oysters to Chesapeake Bay

By Scott Harper
Link to original article:

Virginians are weighing in with their choices for a preferred grand strategy for restoring oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and so far, the winner seems to be an old favorite - sticking with the native species.

A side-by-side comparison of an Asian oyster, left, and a native oyster. The Asian species grow faster and are more resistant to disease. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot)

At public meetings last week in Newport News and Colonial Beach, most speakers said they think an Asian oyster is too biologically risky to introduce directly into the Bay.

This majority includes scientists, environmentalists and watermen. They instead want government to step up its efforts at bringing back the native Eastern oyster from near extinction, despite minimal success over the past 15 years at doing so.

The Asian animal, also known as ariakensis or the Suminoe oyster, is not a silver bullet, said Jay O'Dell, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, at a three-hour public hearing Friday night in Newport News.

Other Atlantic coastal states, he said, are opposed to the foreign species as well, fearing it could spread into their waters and carry new problems if Virginia and Maryland decide to give the China Sea import an adopted home in the Bay.

"It's just way too early to give up on the Eastern oyster," O'Dell said.

He said federal, state and local governments have spent "only about $58 million" on native recovery efforts since the mid-1990s. "That's decimal dust in the federal budget," O'Dell said.

A meaningful program, he and others said, would cost $520 million over 10 years.

The hearings last week stem from the release of a major environmental study on restoration alternatives for Chesapeake oysters.

Native stocks have sunk to historic lows because of disease, pollution, overfishing and lost habitat. This has left the Bay without a key natural filter of pollutants and has decimated a once-powerful oyster industry.

Led by the Army Corps of Engineers and taking five years and nearly $15 million to complete, the study reached no conclusions about a top strategy, but it suggested three combination plans.

All three call for increased funding and attention to the native species, one supports careful cultivation of sterile Asians in controlled settings, and one includes a direct introduction of reproducing Asian oysters.

In advance of choosing a path, the corps scheduled six public meetings, three in Virginia and three in Maryland.

The corps expects to announce a final plan by June.

The third and final public hearing in Virginia is tonight on the Eastern Shore, where interest in farming native oysters is gaining momentum.

The biggest champions of an Asian introduction are seafood merchants and other business interests that have watched shucking houses close, jobs disappear and profits fall for several decades.

More recently, they have trumpeted successes with the Asian oyster in controlled field tests. The animals grow to market size faster than natives, taste about the same and, most important, do not die of local diseases.

"Until we get an organism that beats the disease, we're not going to have any success, no matter how much money we throw at it," said Robert Johnson, a Suffolk seafood executive, at Friday night's hearing.

Johnson said private industry would pay for most of the Asian work, while native restoration relies mostly on taxpayer money.

A.J. Erskine, president of the Virginia Seafood Council, said the long debate Friday night - and for the past decade - misses a key point.

"No one is saying we should stop one thing and do another," he said. "We're saying do both - continue working with natives as well as with ariakensis. Why can't we look at both?"


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