May 30, 2005

Scientists to Study Asian Oysters in Bay

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- A 30-month fact-finding experiment will examine how Asian oysters grow, perform and survive in the Chesapeake Bay.

Researchers with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the University of Maryland will place thousands of the exotic oyster species in cages in the bay at four sites, two in Maryland and two in Virginia.

The scientists want to see how the Asian oysters compete with native oysters, whether they survive diseases that have ravaged the native stocks and how they grow amid predators in a real-world setting on the bottom of the bay.

Results from the study, to cost at least $721,000, will help determine whether Virginia and Maryland should be allowed to introduce Asian oysters into the bay as a way to restore a wild population.

The study runs through October 2007, assuming it gets under in June as planned, said Mark Luckenbach, a fisheries scientist and oyster expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a branch of the College of William & Mary.

While the bay states have struggled to resurrect the local species, ravaged by pollution and parasites, seafood merchants have urged the use of the Asian strain from the waters off China, Vietnam and Japan.

In controlled experiments to date, the Asian oyster has survived parasites and grown rapidly to market size, filtered more algae from waters than natives and passed consumer taste tests.

Still, some scientists and environmental groups worry that the foreign species might create havoc in the bay waters.

They first want a thorough analysis of possible consequences. The study, approved last week by Virginia regulators, would help answer many of those questions, Luckenbach said. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 5-1 to allow the study.

Cynthia Jones, an Old Dominion University scientist, voted against the project, saying she remains concerned about accidental breeding despite security measures against it. The research project still needs approval from Maryland and federal regulators, but Luckenbach said he remains optimistic that work can begin next month.

The project is financed by a combination of federal and state funds and private donations.