April 7, 2009

Let's Hear It for the Native Oysters

Hooray! Federal and state officials just announced that Asian oysters will not be allowed in the Chesapeake Bay, and that the existing Asian oyster "farms" will be gone from the bay within a month. About a million of them are in controlled farms in Virginia waters as part of a seven-year experiment to see how the oysters would adapt.

This finally puts to rest a debate that's been going on for many years (and cost about $17 million)about whether an oyster species from China could revitalize the Chesapeake, where only about 1 percent of the oyster numbers from John Smith's day remain. And I don't mean revitalize as Oysters Rockefeller, but rather as filterers of our less-than-pristine waters. When they're really thriving, they can revitalize our watermen's income.

The federal, Virginia, and Maryland governments will now focus their efforts on bringing back the bay's native oyster. Native oyster restoration IS working in Virginia, in spite of little funding. Too bad that $17 million hadn't been re-directed from those studies. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has determined that native Virginia oysters at the mouth of the Rappahannock River have increased tolerance to Dermo and MSX, the two major diseases that kill oysters. Rapahannock rays remain as a threat there, however, since they really enjoy baby spat oysters.

Research will be allowed to continue on Asian oysters, though not in Chesapeake waters. The debate could reopen if lab work proves that sterile Asian oysters can escape from farms and later reproduce.
The bad news, however, is that a mere $12 million is available at the moment for native oyster restoration projects in 2009. $50 million is the recommended annual expenditure.

Local Oyster Info: In 1957, most tongers began to harvest oysters from the James River and sell them to a soup company. Starting in 1959, the MSX disease began to kill most oysters larger than 50 mm long in salinities above 15% in Chesapeake Bay, including those in Hampton Roads.
From 1966 to 1976, from 42 to 175 tong boats harvested about 3,000 bushels/day. The harvesting of the soup oysters ended when kepone was found in the James River.

Overfishing of oysters had a dire effect. After the 1986-87 season, when tongers harvested 238,000 bushels of market-size oysters from the James River, oysters were relatively scarce.

The final straw was the loss of underwater grasses and the acculation of layers of silt on river bottoms. Oysters need a good bottom to take hold. As a consequence of the small oyster stocks in Virginia, few tongers remain.

More Environmental News: Last week Chesapeake Bay Foundation's litigation seeking to overturn the Army Corps of Engineers' permit to allow the destruction of over 400 acres of wetlands in Virginia to create the King William Reservoir was won in federal court. The judge found the Corps and EPA to have been "arbitrary and capricious."