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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892

URI researcher: Proposed introduction of non-native oysters could impact entire East Coast

Co-chair of national committee advises government, industry

KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 29, 2003 -- At a time when exotic species are being blamed for significant population declines of native species around the world, some government officials and the oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay area are clamoring to introduce the Asian Suminoe oyster (Crassotrea ariakensis) to boost the economy.

But University of Rhode Island Professor James Anderson of Wakefield, who recently co-chaired a National Research Council committee examining the proposal, cautions that a rapid introduction of the non-native oysters could potentially cause considerable problems up and down the East Coast and ultimately have a negative impact on the region’s economy.

"It’s very difficult to contain most introduced species once they’re in the environment," Anderson said, citing the examples of zebra mussels and kudzu, which have spread rapidly and done irreparable harm to local species. "We don’t know much about the biology of the Suminoe oyster and how it will compete with native oysters. It might undermine the recovery of the native species."

Anderson’s committee was less concerned with the impact of introducing the oyster to the Bay than they were with potential "hitchhikers" – diseases, crabs, sponges or other organisms that might be relocated to the Bay along with the transplanted oysters.

Commercial harvest of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is now less than one percent of what it was a century ago, due in large part to fishing pressures and habitat

degradation caused by agricultural, industrial and residential pollution. In recent decades, however, the diseases MSX and Dermo have been identified as the primary reasons for further decline. The result has been an economic disaster for many communities tied to the oyster industry and has contributed to a degradation of the Bay’s water quality, since oysters filter the water of microscopic algae and therefore contribute to the water quality of the Bay.

The committee was charged with analyzing the ecological and socio-economic risks associated with three management options: not introducing non-native oysters at all; introducing a limited number of sterile non-native oysters; or introducing large numbers of reproductive Asian oysters. All three options had many supporters. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich supported immediate introductions of reproductive oysters.

The committee concluded that the best option was a controlled aquaculture of the sterile oysters so their impact on the Bay’s ecosystem could be better evaluated before a full-scale introduction was done.

"Decisions being made in the Chesapeake Bay could potentially impact the whole East Coast from the Carolinas to New England," said Anderson. "While it’s not uncommon for non-native oysters to be introduced elsewhere – the oyster industry in France and on the U.S. West Coast is primarily based on non-native oysters – every reintroduction poses a considerable risk."

In addition to choosing one of the proposed options, Anderson’s committee strongly recommended that any introduction of non-native species follow the appropriate international protocol, which includes quarantining the oysters to test for pathogens. The group also concluded that the current regulatory framework is inadequate to address multi-state species introductions like the one proposed.

"If Virginia says it wants to introduce the oysters and Maryland says it doesn’t, the oysters from Virginia are eventually going to end up in the waters of both states because they don’t care about political boundaries. And the federal government doesn’t have well-defined authority to intervene," he said.

Anderson was chosen to co-chair the National Research Council committee because of his expertise in evaluating economic issues in the shellfish and aquaculture industries. He said that URI faculty from the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences are often called upon by the Council to join such committees because of their expertise in marine studies.

For Further Information: James Anderson 874-4568

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Page last revised Monday, September 29, 2003 .