The Virginia Seafood Council has dropped—for now—a proposal to place unconfined nonnative oysters on the bottom of the Piankatank River to test the potential of future commercial-scale deployment.
The industry trade group notified the Virginia Marine Resources Commission that it was withdrawing its request Dec. 14, just days before William Pruitt, who heads the commission, was due to make a decision.
“I was not finding support in the places that I needed support,” said Frances Porter, director for the council. “That’s kind of sad for us, but we will be back in the spring with a revised proposal for an on-bottom introduction.”
The council’s proposal, made at the Oct. 25 commission meeting, called for placing 10,000 sterile Crassostrea ariakensis seed oysters on clean shell in a 20-foot-square area of the Piankatank.
But it had been strongly criticized by scientists, environmental groups and some officials from state and federal agencies who said the project was too risky.
Although the project would use sterile oysters, the technique to render them sterile is not 100 percent effective. Because the oysters would not be contained, critics said it would be difficult to ensure that all would be recovered, potentially leading to an introduction.
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” and recommended that it be rejected.
A law that went into effect last July gave Pruitt the sole authority to approve an introduction of nonnative oysters. But the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District sent a letter to the state warning that the plan would require a permit from the Corps, which has authority to regulate the placement of structures or “fill” material into U.S. waters.
Porter said part of the council’s interest in the project is to test the Corps’ authority. While the placement of structures used to rear oysters in aquaculture is clearly regulated, she disputed whether the Corps has authority to regulate the placement of oyster shells, covered with baby oysters known as “spat,” in the water.
“We don’t think the federal government has any authority over growing oysters on bottom in Virginia, but that has not been proven in court.” she said. “That is an issue that has to be resolved. That is not an issue that will be resolved if we containerize them. We know we would have to have a federal permit to have them in a container on bottom.”
Previous and ongoing tests sponsored by the council have been limited to rearing the oysters in containers for aquaculture, which shows that sterile C. ariakensis oysters grew rapidly—and profitably—in aquaculture conditions.
Porter said the new project is intended to go beyond aquaculture and would test the oyster’s suitability for traditional on-bottom growth and harvest.
“We want a traditional industry,” Porter said. “An aquaculture industry will require a lot of new infrastructure. It will be pretty exclusive of the traditional working watermen. We like the traditional industry in Virginia and we want to see it revived and we don’t see great hope with the native oyster, so we want to use the nonnative oyster.”
Watermen and the seafood industry have been hard hit by the demise of the native oyster, whose stocks have been decimated by two deadly diseases—MSX and Dermo—as well as by historic overharvesting and habitat degradation.