WASHINGTON – At least one federal agency will appeal Virginia’s plan to plant 1 million Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, saying the proposal plays “Russian roulette” with the environment.
The long-term threat of introducing the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, to the environment outweighs the short-term benefit to the seafood industry, said Julie Thompson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
“If there are bad effects, they’re pretty much irreversible,” Thompson said. “You’re pretty much stuck with that problem.”
But she doubted that her office would ultimately be able to stop the Virginia Seafood Council’s proposal to put sterilized foreign oysters in the bay to see if the shellfish can thrive where native oysters have been decimated.
The Army Corps of Engineers regional office in Virginia will issue a permit for the test to go ahead, an official there said.
“We think the risks are acceptably low,” said Peter Kube, an environmental scientist for the corps working on the permit.
The plan, which was approved Tuesday by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, calls for the foreign oysters to be kept in cages, mesh bags or trays at eight sites in the bay and along the Atlantic coast from June until April 2005.
The 1 million oysters will be sterilized to prevent their spread. Other safeguards include the appointment of a project manager to oversee the trial and a requirement that the test oysters be pulled from the bay when a severe storm approaches.
Early tests on the Asian oysters have indicated that they are resistant to diseases that have ravaged the native oyster stocks. The test that is scheduled to start this summer is aimed at seeing if the Asian oysters can thrive in the bay, then at seeing how well they fare with consumers.
But while Virginia and the local corps office have backed the plan, others maintain the risk of introducing a foreign species is too high.
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they are considering whether to join the Fish and Wildlife Service in appealing the local corps’ OK to headquarters in Washington, which would have final say on the permit.
After the final ruling by the corps, the plan still could be blocked by a lawsuit by environmental groups or other interested parties.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources lacks the right to appeal the corps ruling, said a spokesman. But the agency has concerns about the project and agrees with the three federal agencies that a decision should be postponed until a National Academy of Sciences report on the subject is released. That report is due in August.
Critics note that the process of sterilizing the 1 million oysters could still leave as many as 1,000 of them able to reproduce. If they did, and their offspring got free in the bay, they could not only muscle out the native oyster but spread up and down the East Coast.
“It could affect not only the bay but the whole Atlantic Coast,” Thompson said.
She and others noted that Maryland and the federal government are spending millions to combat problems caused by nonnative species introduced to the area, such as the beaver-like nutria that are destroying parts of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
“There are a lot of unforeseeable potential consequences,” said Peter Marx, a spokesman for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program.
But the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association said those fears are overblown with the Asian oyster.
“The (Asian) oyster is a first cousin with ours. It eats and (excretes) the same stuff ours does,” so it should not pose an environmental threat, said Larry Simns.