A panel of national experts will soon begin reviewing scientific, social and economic issues related to the potential use of nonnative oysters in the Chesapeake now that state and federal agencies have raised money for the study.

Details of the study are still in the final stages, but a National Academy of Sciences panel is expected to begin working June 1 and provide a report by May 31, 2003 that will summarize the risks and benefits of using the Crassostrea ariakensis oysters from Southeast Asia in the Chesapeake.

The expert panel will also help to identify key research issues regarding any use of ariakensis, also known as the Suminoe oyster.

The Academy — a nonprofit institution created by Congress to advise the federal government on science policy — normally focuses on broader national issues. But Bay region officials, seeking an outside group to look at the contentious issue, asked the Academy earlier this year to study the issue. Its Ocean Studies Board agreed that the oyster study was justified because it had broad implications for aquaculture and the introduction of nonnative species.

“The Academy has access to the best and the brightest that the country has to offer,” said Mike Fritz, living resources coordinator with the EPA’s Bay Program Office. He said the importance of the issue to the Bay region was illustrated by the fact that so many agencies and states chipped in to raise $310,000 for the study during tight fiscal times.

Money came from the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the states of Maryland and Virginia, the Sea Grant Colleges of both Maryland and Virginia, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Morgan Gopnik, director of the NAS’ Ocean Studies Board, which will oversee the study, said it would soon issue a “call for nominations” seeking national experts to serve on the review panel from such fields as estuarine ecology, social and economic fisheries issues, oysters, aquaculture and other topics related to the study.

“It has to be someone with specific expertise,” Gopnik said. “We are looking for experts.”

The study, which was formally approved by the Academy’s governing board March 12, would examine the ecological and socioeconomic risks and benefits of three alternatives:

  • using sterile oysters in aquaculture;
  • placing a reproducing population in the Bay; or
  • barring the use of ariakensis altogether.

The study would address how ariakensis might affect the Bay’s ecology, including effects on native species, water quality, habitat, and the spread of human and oyster diseases.

The panel would examine the impact that ariakensis might have on the recovery of native oysters, and the extent of its potential range in the Bay and along the East Coast. It would also investigate the adequacy of existing regulatory frameworks to monitor oyster use.

An open workshop, in which people could present information to the panel, will likely take place in late summer, Gopnik said.

Recent studies have found that ariakensis grows much faster than the native species, Crassostrea virginica, and appears resistant to the diseases that have devastated the native oyster population.

That has created a huge interest among watermen in both states as well as the seafood industry about the oyster’s potential. Others are concerned that efforts to render the foreign oysters sterile may not be totally effective, and could eventually result in a reproducing ariakensis population in the Bay.

Because ariakensis is poorly studied, some fear a wild population could have unpredictable consequences for the Bay, although many contend it could also have beneficial water-filtering impacts.

Meanwhile, officials expect the Virginia Seafood Council to make a formal proposal in April to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to continue the use of sterilized ariakensis oysters in aquaculture this year.

Although details of the proposal have not been released, many industry representatives have urged greatly expanding the 60,000-oyster experiment that took place last year to help bolster the ailing oyster industry.

The fate of any proposal that would sharply increase the use of ariakensis, especially before the NAS review is completed, is uncertain.

Many federal agencies and research institutions have taken positions opposing any dramatic expansion of the aquaculture experiments, although several have suggested that limited, continued efforts could provide useful information.

Further, the Army Corps of Engineers recently concluded that it must issue a permit before any further in-water aquaculture projects with the oyster could take place.

Before issuing a permit, Corps officials have said they would carefully weigh recommendations from a special Bay Program panel that is formed whenever there is a proposed introduction of a nonnative species, or an expansion in the use of a nonnative.

Under the Bay Program’s policy on the introduction of nonnative species, the panel would review the proposal and make recommendations about the introduction within 60 days.