In Virginia, the Right Call
Better late than never, I said to no one in particular when I heard that the Virginia Seafood Council decided to halt its plan to ask the state to allow 39 seafood dealers to introduce more than one million Asian oysters to the Bay this summer. A sigh of relief might also have been audible at the Tawes Building in Annapolis, where Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists, and their chief, Chuck Fox, had worked to postpone the plan.
The councils decision not to seek state approval stemmed from the recommendations of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science experts, who determined that the chemical bath used to sterilize the non-native oysters was not reliable enough. Though the failure rate of one to two percent seems benign, it would take only one million oysters to result in 10,000 to 20,000 alien oysters ready to breed in Bay waters. Too risky.
Late in the game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers and EPA weighed in to help derail this potential runaway ecological train. The Chesapeake Bay Commission also had urged the council to wait until the National Academy of Sciences study is completed next June.
Its easy to understand the infatuation commercial aquaculture interests and oyster shucking houses have with the Asian oyster ariakensis. It grows quickly, and preliminary tests indicate it is resistant to Dermo and MSX, two diseases that have ravaged the Bays oyster stocks. Perhaps most important, from a marketing perspective at least, some people find that ariakensis looks and tastes similar to our the native oyster, virginica.
Before pollution, disease and over-harvesting reduced once-prolific oyster reefs to mere remnants, the Chesapeake produced more than a million bushels of oysters a year. This past season in Virginia, wild harvests barely totaled 5,000 baskets. The Chesapeake Bay Foundations 2001 State of the Bay Report placed oysters at only two percent of their historic level.
Tommy Kellum, vice president of the seafood council, runs an oyster packing house on Virginias Northern Neck, so he knows firsthand what is at stake. A couple of years ago, I ran a boat for a trip with Kellum, Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist Rob Brumbaugh and dozens of Virginia resources professionals to show U.S. Sen. John Warner the success of reef-building and stocking efforts. The demonstration helped leverage millions of dollars in oyster restoration funds. From that experience, I found Kellum to be sincere in his desire to improve the oyster industry and water quality.
There is ample evidence about the effects of non-native species on ecosystems. In the 1960s, France introduced the Pacific oyster to help revive its shellfish industry, but, according to scientists, it may have brought diseases that contributed to the demise of the native Portuguese oyster. Another Asian import, the zebra mussel, now grows so thickly in the Great Lakes that it has shut down power plants by clogging water lines. Recent findings now reveal zebra mussels are in the Bays headwaters in the Susquehanna River.
Other examples closer to home include nutria brought from the Bayou to the Delmarva Peninsula to buoy a failing fur trade and mute swans introduced as ornamental birds. How many nutria hats are Bay Country dilettantes sporting these days? Today, these marsh rats reproduce like crazy and denude acres of wetlands essential to good water quality.
There is no quick fix to saving the Bay, but Chesapeake 2000 outlines a plan. Oyster restoration efforts are only in their infancy, relative to the bivalves demise. Let science lead us when making these decisions because once you let in a non-native, forever means forever.