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Watermen want Asian oysters in the Chesapeake

By GAIL DEAN Dorchester Editor

Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 7:54 AM CST

CAMBRIDGE Watermen from Rock Hall to Chincoteague, Va., came here Friday evening for the last of six hearings on a proposal by Maryland and Virginia to introduce reproductive Crassostrea ariakensis (Asian oysters) into Chesapeake Bay.

That they are tired of expensive studies (this one cost $17.5 million) and want action taken was among the points made by 40 or so watermen attending along with about a dozen other representatives of the seafood industry, environmental organizations or government agencies here at Minnette Dick Hall.

The hearings considered three proposals for 10-year programs from a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with funding from Congress, because of the federal requirement for such a statement for any project in which the federal government is involved. The proposals considered alternative actions for the Bay's oyster population 8A would see increased efforts to restore the native Eastern oyster and encourage aquaculture, for around $521 million and 8B would see restoration of the native oyster, aquaculture and introduction of triploid (sterile) Suminoe oysters, also for $521 million. Suminoe is the named used for C. ariakensis in the PEIS.

Watermen from both Maryland and Virginia prefer Alternative 8C, with both triploid and diploid (normal, fertile) Asian oysters introduced along with increasing native oyster restoration efforts and aquaculture, a 10-year program with a $668-million price tag.

Along with costing $147 million more than the other two proposals, introducing fertile non-native oysters to the Bay would likely mean the irreversible spread of Asian oysters throughout Mid-Atlantic waters and to the north.

This could mean cross-breeding between native and non-native oysters, with competition between the two types of oyster, though they could also co-exist without problems, according to the PEIS. Comment on the draft PEIS, which was released to the public Oct. 17, is being accepted through Dec. 15 through the mail to: Department of the Army, Norfolk District, Corps of Engineers, Fort Norfolk, 803 Front Street, Norfolk, Virginia 23510-1096, Attn. Mark Mansfield. Comments may also be submitted viaemailto Mark.T.Mansfieldusace.army.mil. For more information about the PEIS, visit the Web site Norfolk District - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and click on the blue box marked, "Oyster Restoration," at the top right. A final draft of the document is expected in April 2009.

Among the watermen complaining about the costs of oyster studies past and present was Bunky Chance of Bozman. He asked, "When are you going to do something?"

Chance directed many of his comments to Tom O'Connell, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who was observing the hearing with Mansfield.

MarylandOystermen's Association Executive Director Jim Mullins suggested his state and the federal government have spent $58 million studying oysters since problems with disease began in the Bay in the 1970s, money which he said has mostly gone to support Horn Point Environmental Laboratories and other research facilities.

Watermen from both states were against a temporary harvest moratorium, a component of all three alternatives.

They also questioned including expanded aquaculture of native oysters in all three alternatives.

"What nobody wants to tell anybody is that it's not economically feasible," Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said of aquaculture.

Simns said growing oysters in floats is labor-intensive, requiring regular cleaning to remove sediment. He also suggested, "If they were meant to be grown that way, they'd have airbags."

He said there is a niche market for oysters grown by man, but it is not a practical way for today's watermen to make a living in the future.

Daniel Martinek of Elliott said he had tried growing oysters on 12 acres of leased bottom there, but had to give up because "when they began to reach market size, they died" in the high salinity waters of Fishing Bay.

To those suggesting pollution has destroyed the Bay's oyster fishery, Martinek said that was not the case with his aquaculture efforts, suggesting that Dorchester County's Fishing Bay, nearly surrounded by wilderness, with fierce tidal and wave action, was one of the healthiest bodies of water in the state.

He took exception to a comment from Jim Fehrer of the Nature Conservancy, who spoke against introducing non-native oysters by discussing problems with other non-native species, like kudzu, a quick-spreading vine meant to slow soil erosion which has taken over parts of the South.

Martinek compared Asian oysters to the non-native Asian elk, regionally known as the sika deer, now thriving in the marshy woodlands of southern Dorchester. He said today in the marshes around Elliott, there are 100 sika for every 8 or 9 white-tailed natives "and they are better eating than the white-tails."

TheChesapeakeBay Foundation's oyster specialist, Stephanie Reynolds, also spoke in favor of the 8A alternative.

From Chincoteague, Va., where people have been growing oysters in shallow beds for more than a century, Tom Mason spoke about the promise of Asian oysters.

"I have been growing oysters for 43 years in Chincoteague," said Mason, explaining that he was one of the first to be given Asian oyster spat to test by the state of Virginia. "These ariakensis oysters are fantastic," he said, producing double the meat of native oysters.

One drawback for the Asian oyster is a shorter shelf life for consumption on the half-shell. Mason said the non-native oysters begin to gape after being out of the water for three days, while native oysters stored correctly can survive twice as long.

Both the Dorchester Seafood Harvesters Association and the county's shell committee favor alternative 8C. DSHA President Ben Parks said it is time watermen here benefit as others have where non-native oysters have been introduced. For now he, said, both Virginia and Maryland are lagging, with Maryland 10 years behind Virginia.

Jim Kline of the Kent County Watermen's Association said the greatest example of a non-native species is most of the people living today on the Eastern Shore, suggesting that if non-native species are a threat to the Bay, "They should be sending us back to England, where we came from."

Maryland Watermen's Assocation President Larry Simns, standing left, makes a point during Friday's hearing in Cambridge on the possible introduction of Asian oysters to Chesapeake Bay.
 

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So a few watermen are "tired" of the studies and want action? In other words, they say go ahead and toss in the non-natives, we're willing to take the chance? Oh really? Willing to take a chance with OUR bay? Let's not forget, once in the water, the non-natives and anything else they may be carrying, like viruses or diseases are released right along with them. Only the bay is not a closed body of water and the consequences will easily be carried up and down the whole eastern seaboard. Certifed pure? BS, it only takes one oyster, one virus, one bacterium to start. The scientists know it and therefore they will not stick their neck out and say "100% guaranteed" not to fail. Watermen know it too but they want the State to gamble. I got a better idea. Save the 500-700 million dollars and put a moratorium on what's left. Let natural selection fix the problem with the native oyster. Resistant oysters already exist. Eventually, fully immune oysters will survive if they are allowed to breed naturally in the wild. That's "100% guaranteed" not to introduce more harm and will very likely succeed.
 

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My understanding is that the main cost factor is finding, then dumping, the substrate necessary to plant native oysters. This is necessary because so many of the native oyster bars are now silted over and oysters cannot live in the mud. My question is, do asian oysters require the same hard-substrate, or can they more-or-less be dumped in the mud?

As for a moratorium, I heard that during the first ORP meeting a few weeks ago, virtually all groups opposed one. The rationale, I am told, is that so few people oyster now that a moratorium would have little effect one way or the other. I have trouble with that argument. By that logic, if only a few commercial fisherman decide to catch and keep sturgeon, then what's the big deal? I'd rather put the oystermen to work on oyster recovery (such as what happened in the Severn this week).

A final question concerns the profitability of aquiculture. I thought that a Cambridge company was starting to be pretty successful. Is that not correct? Also, aquaculture now accounts for about 40% of all seafood, worldwide. Quite a few people are finding ways to turn a profit on a large variety of species, apparently. Why can't our local industry do the same?
 

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Because we haven't yet figured out that introducing non-natives is a bad idea? The track record goes back pretty far. For a couple of recent examples lets talk about snakeheads and mitten crabs--maybe they can replace lost revenue as well.

If there is a chance of natural resistance to disease in the population showing up, then lets give it a shot. I really wonder what a moratorium would cost. If we pulled the tax records of the watermen and see how much profit they are reporting from oysters, what would it come out to? My guess (from listening to talk about how most days they can't cover their expenses) is that very few will show any profit after expenses--if that is the case, pay the ones that are showing a profit the money that they will lose and the ones that are operating at a loss, you are doing a favor.

THEN you can try to restore habitat or start aquaculture or whatever. But the cycle of destroying everything down there has to end. The greedy and shortsighted few out there that are pushing to introduce a species need to spend a little time looking at the environmental history books. We know enough now to know better and we should act like it.

Hans
(trying not to sprain my ankle as I climb down from my soapbox)
 

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"Among the watermen complaining about the costs of oyster studies past and present was Bunky Chance of Bozman. He asked, "When are you going to do something?"

Agreed. Moratorium now on harvesting native oysters from public bottom. When we reach the EIS's recommended population of 12 bilion oysters, we can reconsider a harvest on a percentage of the surplus.
 

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No surprise there

The watermen want something to catch, and they see the introduced critter as providing that opportunity. After all, they have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. They don't have enough native oysters to catch, and if the introduced species falls on its face (figuratively speaking), they are no worse off. If they produce some unforeseen consequence that negatively effects the ecosystem of the bay, they are no worse off. If the oysters thrive they and the bay are better off. They want a possible win/can't lose any more than they lost already scenario. Their interest in a paycheck while working at a job that is traditional (and harvests from the commons) certainly outweighs concerns about the welfare of the Bay.

Of course Larry Simms doesn't support oyster farming. It wouldn't be any fun being the President of the Maryland Oyster Farmer's Association. Just pronounce the acronym, and you'll see what I mean.:D
 

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Again, to everyone pushing for a moratorium....at the last public meeting, almost nobody supported it from any group. On the other hand, the folks presenting apparently had a moratorium as part of most scenarios that they recommended. However, if they only hear "no moratorium" from the audience, then that sure gets that hot potato off of their PowerPoint slide in a hurry.

The point I'm making is that views expressed on TF probably aren't as effective as views expressed during the meetings. I'm just as guilty....I didn't make the meeting, either.

Does anyone know when/where the next one is?
 

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Thanks for the link. It is hard for most of the public to attend any of these meetings. So of course the audience is all MWA members and supporters filling the seats to look like a majority. They've been controlling the system this way for years. I will be using the link to send in my comments and I would encourage everybody else to do the same.
 
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