Southern Maryland skeptical of trying new breed of oyster

Introducing them to bay debated

Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

Southern Marylanders are wary of a proposal to release an Asian oyster species into the Chesapeake, judging by comments at a public hearing Wednesday night on a draft environmental impact statement addressing different approaches to restoring oysters to the bay.

At the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Bill Richkus with Versar Inc., a private environmental-restoration consulting company, showed data demonstrating the decline of the oyster harvest over the past 130 years due to overfishing, habitat destruction, siltation and water quality degradation. He then presented a list of seven possible approaches to restoration, including continuing current programs, intensifying attempts at restoring native oyster populations, introducing sterile Asian oysters and introducing fertile Asian oysters, also called Suminoe oysters or C. ariakensis.

Combinations of these approaches are also possible, and probably necessary, he said.

Some hope Suminoe oysters could thrive despite two diseases, dermo and MSX, that plague native C. virginica in the salty waters of the lower bay. The intent is to improve water quality by removing nutrients and sediment, and revitalize the region's ailing fishing industry.

Risks to the project, Richkus said, include Suminoe's greater vulnerability to predation by crabs and worms and its shorter shelf life, possibly excluding it from the most lucrative markets.

It might also drive C. virginica to extinction, though scientists hope the two could coexist and even establish mixed-species reefs.

Calvert County Watermen's Association President Tommy Zinn, was the only Marylander to speak in favor of giving Suminoe oysters a try.

Zinn said water pollution, not overfishing, is to blame for the plummeting oyster population, and asked that the new oysters be introduced while native oyster restoration efforts continue.

"Watermen are easy to go after," Zinn said. "Overharvesting is untrue for the past 15 years. If we put more energy into going after polluters and less into bashing watermen" the situation would have improved by now, he said.

Waiting for bay oyster populations to rebound could take decades, and "we don't have 30 years to wait. We need it now," he said.

A representative of the Virginia Seafood Council also spoke in favor of establishing Suminoe reefs in the bay.

But almost a dozen other speakers spoke up for the native variety.

"Citizens have been spending … a lot of money to put spat [baby oysters] out, but we haven't gotten results. It seems to me there needs to be something more scientific done before we even think about Asian oysters," said Edward Dowgiallo of Tall Timbers.

He advocated more intensive native oyster restoration efforts, including a harvesting moratorium.

He feared dire consequences if Suminoe oysters were released because, despite laboratory experiments, it is impossible to know for certain what the effects would be in the wild: "It scares me to tamper with Mother Nature."

"I don't want to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but it's an unknown unknown" of what will happen after the introduction of a nonnative species, Richkus said. "[But] … the best thing that could happen is that the Suminoe oyster would grow and prosper in places where the native oyster did."

Roy Fedders, who lives on St. Jerome Creek, was skeptical that scientists could guarantee that the strain of Suminoe to be released, which hails from Asia via a discarded introduction attempt in the Pacific Northwest, would not introduce new diseases into the bay.

"With all due respect, I've found Mother Nature has a way of getting around the state's protocols," Fedders said.

Conservation organizations also spoke against the plan.

Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said, "We feel that the risks of bringing in this foreign oyster are not worth it," he said. "We support scaling up native oyster restoration in the bay. We also support enhanced development of native oyster aquaculture. Some may say, ‘An oyster is an oyster is an oyster,' but it really is a different animal."