On the U.S. Chesapeake, Asian Oyster Stirs Debate
BURGESS, Va. The oysters piled high in Rich Harding's boat are the best he's seen in years -- plump and healthy, with no signs of the diseases that have ravaged shellfish beds on the Chesapeake Bay.
Oyster hauls like this could double Harding's income, but these particular bivalves come with a side dish of controversy. Brought from Asia 18 months ago to breathe new life into the bay's tired waters, nobody knows how they'll behave in the wild, outside the current controlled experiments.
So far, Harding says, the oysters seem to be thriving.
Waist deep in the Little Wicomico River, 80 miles from Washington, Harding hauls up mesh bags filled with oysters, mud and algae. Eels and shrimp squirm out as an assistant hauls the bags aboard.
"They worked out great, they grew exceptionally fast," he says. "The mortality rate was next to nothing."
Seafood-industry officials believe the Asian Suminoe oysters could revive a fishery that's been nearly wiped out by pollution and disease, but environmentalists worry that the newcomers could crowd out native Eastern oysters and upset a food chain that supports striped bass and other sport fish.
An alphabet soup of state and federal agencies is studying the issue, and until they're done, only a few watermen like Harding can grow the oyster in tightly controlled experiments using sterile stock that can't reproduce.
Oysters were once so plentiful in the bay that Colonial-era ships had to steer around the massive reefs that stuck out above the waterline. After the Civil War, the bay echoed with rifle shots as watermen fought over beds that provided the world with 40 percent of its oysters.
The area around Harding's oyster beds, where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake, saw up to six murders each week in the 1890s, according to "The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay," a history of the conflict.
Overfishing led to a steady decline in harvests throughout the 20th century, but as recently as 1980 the Chesapeake still accounted for half of the all oysters pulled from U.S. waters.
Then two diseases, Dermo and MSX, took hold. Development along the Bay's 12,000 miles of shoreline brought increased pollution.
Now the Bay only accounts for about 3 percent of the U.S. harvest and Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production. In 2004, a Maryland state official characterized the state's oyster fishery as "virtually nonexistent."
Trucks, Not Boats
As Harding's boat approaches the dock, the devastation becomes clear. Pullies used to unload oyster boats hang rusty and unused. Oysters for his shucking operation now arrive on trucks from the Gulf of Mexico.
"They're coming from the road, rather than the water," he says. "Every year we have to bring in more oysters from the Gulf."
Most of Harding's boyhood friends who shoveled out oyster boats with him after school have found other work, he said.
Industry officials believe the Suminoe oyster could revive the fishery and lure Harding's friends back to the water.
Suminoe oysters reach maturity in six months, compared to the 18 months needed for Eastern Oysters to reach maturity, and they've shown strong resistance to disease. That means a more reliable harvest and greater profits for watermen and shucking houses, said A.J. Erskine, a project manager with the Virginia Seafood Council.
Conservation groups say the new oyster could create a disaster akin to the zebra mussel, which clogs water-intake pipes in the Great Lakes at a cost of millions of dollars each year.
"Introducing a nonnative species into an environment is by no means a sure thing," says Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Once it's there you suffer whatever adverse consequences there may be."
"There's a risk and a benefit for everything, and the benefit may outweigh the risk," counters Erskine, who says the Suminoe is unlikely to crowd out other species because unlike zebra mussels it will be harvested, he says.
Inside Harding's shucking house, a worker pries open one of the Suminoe oysters. Its flesh nearly fills the entire shell, dwarfing an Eastern oyster taken from the nearby James River. The mild, meaty taste of the two oysters is nearly identical.
Whether or not the Bay ultimately adopts this newcomer, everybody agrees that the region's once-mighty oyster fishery has only a limited amount of time before it disappears completely.
"Once we lose this infrastructure, these shucking houses, we can't get that back. It's going to become somebody's million-dollar home," says Karen Hudson, a Virginia state biologist.