WASHINGTON – Scientists believe that one of the diseases that has decimated the native oyster population was likely introduced decades ago when Japanese oysters were dropped in the Chesapeake Bay.
The oysters died but the disease, MSX, lived on.
Now, as researchers prepare a strictly controlled test of 1 million Asian oysters in the bay, state and federal officials worry that desperation could turn an under-worked waterman into the midwife of a new marine malady, by introducing the foreign oyster without safeguards.
“Human nature says someone is going to do it and do it wrong,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
Experts leave little doubt that someone could get a supply of Asian oysters and dump them in the bay — but they won’t say how it might be done.
“I don’t want to teach everybody how to do it,” Simns said. “It’s like telling people how to buy drugs on the street corner.”
Several area wholesalers said they do not truck in the nonnative species or know where to buy them. But others suggested that it could be as easy as calling the right vendor.
“Maybe it is. I’m not telling,” said Standish K. Allen, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science researcher who has done studies for years on the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis.
Those studies have involved extensive precautions: Researchers have bred the Asian oysters in laboratories for several generations to screen for diseases, then done their best to neuter the shellfish before testing them in area waters.
The Virginia Seafood Council promises to follow similar safeguards for its plan to test 1 million of the nonnative oysters in the bay. That plan is awaiting final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Rules were not as strict when the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, was brought to the bay.
“That was back in the old days when they (governments) didn’t have to permit that stuff much,” said Dave Schulte, an oceanographer with the corps.
Some think that MSX came to the bay with oysters that were used as part of a sanctioned experiment, not unlike the proposed test of Asian oysters. Others believe the tainted oysters may have been introduced by an enterprising — albeit short-sighted — waterman, who could have brought them from California where the species was being tested.
Whoever put the oyster in the bay, scientists largely agree that the Japanese oyster brought the disease with it.
“They’re pretty much certain that MSX was brought in that way,” Schulte said.
Today, the laws and regulations are stricter. But the reckless action of an amateur would be just as dangerous, potentially spreading new diseases or parasites with the ability to ravage native aquaculture.
Any new diseases or pathogens could also be dangerous to other marine animals, including crabs, said Jack Greer, a Maryland Sea Grant assistant director.
Today, at least, such an action would violate the law.
Maryland prohibits importation or possession of nonnative shellfish without a permit. The crime is punishable with a fine of up to $500 on the first offense, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
There is no equivalent law at the federal level. The Lacey Act outlaws importing zebra mussels and snakeheads, among other animals, but makes no mention of the Asian oyster, said Julie Thompson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Some federal officials are not ready to see the Virginia Seafood Industry introduce Asian oysters into the bay. The project won approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission in the last week of February, but it still needs the corps’ approval.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service last week asked that the corps’ Washington headquarters decide the issue, rather than the regional office in Virginia, said Peter Kube, an environmental scientist for the corps.
But area watermen contend that tying Asian oyster plans up in red tape is not the answer.
“We think the real danger is not doing anything. Because if not, someone will bring something wild in that will bring all kinds of diseases,” Simns said.