ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Board of Public Works cleared the way Wednesday for University of Maryland researchers to put cages of sterile, non-native oysters in tidal waters.
Kennedy Paynter’s study is one of several examining Asian Suminoe oysters and the possibility of introducing them into the Chesapeake Bay.
“This is the first experiment to place sterile (Asian oysters) in state waters,” said Chris Judy, shellfish program director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Similar experiments are already underway in Virginia waters.
The Maryland board granted a wetlands license allowing Paynter to place 24 cages of oysters in tidal regions of the Severn, Choptank and Patuxent rivers. Paynter’s study must be completed by November 2005.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration believes introducing non-native oysters to the bay could restore its dramatically declining oyster population.
Suminoe oysters grow faster than indigenous ones and tend to be more resistant to the diseases that have decimated native populations.
“If you don’t have the oysters, you’ve got a much smaller chance of saving Chesapeake Bay,” said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, pointing to oysters’ ability to filter bay water. “If we lose (the oysters), you can pour money into all sorts of treatment and everything else, but you’ve lost the key.”
Ehrlich, Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer comprise the Board of Public Works.
Paynter’s results would contribute to a larger state study of the consequences of releasing reproductive Asian oysters into the bay. The state report will examine potential benefits as well as possibilities that fertile Asian oysters might crowd out native oysters, deplete aquatic food sources or spread up the East Coast.
The state hopes to complete its study within 18 months — less time than typical, but long enough to maintain quality, Judy said.
Paynter plans to tether 24 heavy-duty, plastic-mesh containers to pilings about six inches off the river bottoms, Judy said. Roughly 3,000 native oysters and 3,000 Suminoe oysters will fill the cages, and all will be neutered genetically.
Since the genetic sterilization process can produce roughly one fertile oyster per batch of 1,000, Paynter will also monitor each cage monthly for any reproduction.
And keeping all the oysters in cages helps minimize the risk of inadvertently introducing the non-native species into the wild, Judy said.
“The risks have been well managed and don’t present any real problems to the bay,” Judy said.
“It seemed to me that that risk was worth taking for the potential return,” Kopp said. “I think it sounds like a very good experiment.”
Last year’s oyster harvest was a record-low 53,000 bushels, Judy said, and experts predict next year’s harvest to drop to half that number.
Harvests ranged from two to four million bushels through most of the last century, Judy said.