A proposal to place unconfined nonnative oysters on a Piankatank River oyster bar should be rejected because the plan lacks sufficient detail and could result in the unintentional introduction of a breeding population, a special Bay Program panel has concluded.
The Virginia Seafood Council has proposed placing 10,000 sterile Crassostrea ariakensis seed on clean shell in a 20-foot-square area of the Piankatank.
The intent of the industry trade group is to test for the potential of a future commercial-scale, on-bottom deployment and harvest of the nonnative oysters, which have shown to be resistant to the diseases that have plagued native oysters.
But an ad-hoc panel convened by the Bay Program to review any potential first-time introduction of a nonnative species, said the plan “lacks any reasonable level of written planning documentation and/or information.”
The panel said the technique for producing sterile oysters is not totally effective, and the proposal included no explanation of how all the uncontained oysters would be recovered, or even monitored.
“The lack of bio-containment/bio-security measures and the lack of management and implementation plans elevate the long-term risks,” the panel said in its report.
Further, it said, the seafood council “could not indicate specifically who would be responsible for removing the oysters, or how and when the oysters would be removed from the Bay.”
The panel, which consists of scientists and management agency representatives from Virginia, Maryland and the federal government, voted unanimously to reject the request.
The panel’s recommendation will be forwarded to William Pruitt, the head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, who is empowered by a new state law to make the decision on the proposal.
The seafood council made its proposal to the commission at its Oct. 25 meeting. Normally, the eight members of the commission would decide such issues, with Pruitt only casting a vote in the case of a tie.
But a law that went into effect in July gives Pruitt the sole authority to approve an introduction of nonnative oysters. He has 60 days to decide.
That may not be the last word on the issue, though. The Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District sent a letter to Gov. Mark Warner stating the plan would require a permit from the Corps because the placement of shell in federal waters would constitute a fill under the Clean Water Act.
As a result, any decision to go ahead could spark a legal showdown between the state and federal government.
The states of Virginia and Maryland have proposed introducing breeding populations of C. ariakensis oysters in the Bay, which is now the subject of an Environmental Impact Statement review.
Scientists, environmentalists and federal agency representatives at the commission meeting urged a delay in any decision until that review is complete.
But oyster growers and shucking house owners said they have nearly run out of time. After waiting years for government experts and scientists to reverse a slow, devastating decline in the native Bay oyster, they have little left to harvest or sell.
Pollution, lost habitat, overharvesting and two deadly diseases— MSX and Dermo—have nearly wiped out native stocks once thought to be nearly infinite.
An earlier test by the seafood council involved the deployment of 800,000 sterile oysters, which showed they could be economically grown in aquaculture, grow fast and resist disease.
But oysters in that test were grown in sturdy mesh bags, which ensured that all were removed from the water.