WASHINGTON – Virginia and federal officials expect to begin issuing permits within days for a controversial test of foreign oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, after adding new safeguards to address opponents’ remaining concerns.
Three federal agencies had appealed the Army Corps of Engineers’ preliminary approval of a plan to put about 1 million neutered Asian oysters in the bay to see if they can survive and help restore the oyster industry here.
The agencies had protested that the foreign species could just as easily bring unforeseen problems. But the appeals were dropped after meetings last week in which the Virginia Seafood Council agreed to new restrictions intended to reduce the chances of the Crassostrea ariakensis reproducing in the bay.
“Those plans need to be in place before the oysters can be put in the bay,” said Peter Colosi, a division chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It had appealed along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
One of the most important of the concessions was the corps’ agreement that it would require that the oysters be out of the water by June 30, 2004. That would leave the oysters less time to mature and breed than the permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which allows the oysters to stay in the bay until April 2005. Still, officials said the federal permit could be extended.
One fear of opponents is that the foreign oyster could not only muscle out the native oyster but also spread up and down the East Coast if it is able to reproduce in the bay.
“There are some conditions we would prefer not to have, but we have them and we will work with them,” said Frances Porter, the seafood council’s executive director.
A corps official said final approval on the federal permit could come next week, while state officials said the Virginia permit could be granted this week. The first oysters could be in the bay as soon as June, Porter said.
The council also agreed to submit emergency plans before any oysters can go in the water and post bonds to clean up any problems if they occur. Another condition requires that the permit be re-evaluated after a National Academy of Sciences report is issued on the subject, likely this summer.
Once the oysters are in the bay, the council will have to track which oysters are where. Tests will be conducted semiannually, and if more than 5 percent of a group of oysters is found capable of reproducing, the entire batch will be pulled.
Despite this and other precautions, it is still expected that as many as 1,000 of the oysters could be capable of reproducing. It remains a possibility that their spat could get loose in the bay.
“If we get non-native oysters in the bay, we’d like to know if they came from these oysters. They (the council) will keep tissue samples in the freezer in case,” said Peter Kube, an environmental scientist for the corps working on the permit.
Porter said the most troublesome condition from her perspective is one that was very important to Environmental Protection Agency officials: The council will have to collect information for an environmental impact study.
“We think it will slow us down when we feel we already know enough about what the environmental impact will be,” Porter said.
But the environmental impact study would be required anyway if officials reach a point where they want to plant the Asian oyster into the bay in greater quantities or introduce them into the wild.
“Surely we will come to the time when we can put a reproducing oyster in the bay,” Porter said.
Federal officials said that is not out of the realm of possibility, although they will continue to look for other alternatives, including saving the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica.