This story first appeared in the SERC quarterly Newsletter Summer 2006

Oyster Research Gets Underway

By the end of this field season, more than 10,000 oysters will be placed on constructed reefs in the Rhode River. Under the close watch of Denise Breitburg and her staff in the Marine and Estuarine Ecology Lab, the oysters are expected to reveal new information about the transmission of Dermo and resistance to this devastating oyster disease.

Once plentiful enough to filter a volume of water equal to the Chesapeake Bay every week, oysters contribute dramatically to the health of the Bay ecosystem. Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other marine animals, and just two decades ago they represented the most economically productive fishery in the Bay.

Since then, over-fishing, loss of habitat, pollution and disease have ravaged the population and today's oysters represent no more than one percent of historic levels. As Maryland and Virginia struggle with the question of how to restore oyster populations, the Army Corps of Engineers and their federal and state partners are preparing an environmental impact statement evaluating the risks and benefits of their options.

Some believe that the native oyster population is so depressed that the only hope lies in the introduction of a non-native species Crassostrea ariakensis or the "Asian Oyster" which seems to grow faster and is more resistant to Dermo than natives. Others feel that not enough has been done to try to restore native populations. Options for the Bay states include introduction of reproductive Asian oysters, aquaculture of sterile Asian oysters, more vigorous efforts to restore native populations, and stricter limits on oyster harvests.

Breitburg is actively involved in the scientific discussions and has led some of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee meetings to address these issues. Through her field work she hopes to improve our understanding of vulnerability of both species of oysters to Dermo and the risks and benefits of introducing C. ariakensis into the Bay.

For more information, or to Dr. Breitburg, please contact SERC science writer Kristen Minogue.