More Research Needed:

Foreign Oysters Proposed For the Chesapeake

The January‚February edition of the Bay Journal reports that the Virginia Seafood Council is drafting a five-year plan that will likely call for using millions of foreign oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in order to revitalize Virginia's ailing oyster industry. The Crassostrea ariakensis, native to Southeast Asia, grows much faster that the Bay's native oyster, the Crassostrea virginica. The foreign oysters also seem to be immune to diseases that have been destroying native ones.

Government agencies, scientists, and others are urging the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to be very careful and cautious about introducting non-native oysters into the Bay.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which has been conducting most of the work with the foreign oysters, concurs that more research is needed before introducing reproductive ariakensis or even a large number of sterile ones into the Bay. Thus far tests have been with 60,000 or less sterile ariakensis, created in labs. VIMS is concerned that a few of the sterile oysters revert to the reproductive variety over time. Thus the release of a very large number of the sterile oysters, for aquaculture purposes, could accidentally lead to reproductive ariakensis in the Bay, with unknown environmental results.

VIMS and other scientists agree that there is not enough information available yet about the ariakensis, even in its native environment. For example, it is unknown whether or not it builds reefs, an important habitat for other oyster species in the Bay. Likewise, it is unknown how the feeding patterns of the ariakensis differ from those of the virginica. This could affect the Bay's food web and the degree to which the foreign oysters could co-exist with the native ones, currently undergoing a major restoration effort that will last at least ten years.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has called for an independent outside review by the National Academy of Sciences to outline needed research about ariakensis. This would then allow a more informed decision about whether or not they should be introduced into the Bay at some future time.

Several of the government and scientist position papers said that any decision about introducing foreign oysters into the Bay should be made in consultation between the states affected, not by any one state alone. They say that it may turn out to be good for the Bay, but considerably more research is needed before that decision is made. In the meantime, both VIMS and the CBF support continued small market tests of the foreign oysters, similar to those conducted in the past two years.

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This story was published on February 6, 2002.