Friday, July 19, 2013

Can Unsexy Oysters Save the Bay?

The Chesapeake Bay once supplied half the world's oyster market. But pollution, disease and over-harvesting have nearly wiped out the population. It's a dire situation that's united former adversaries to revive the oyster ecosystem and industry.

Scientists and watermen have joined forces to plant underwater farms in the bay with a special oyster bred in a lab. Called triploid oysters, they have been selected for attributes like disease tolerance and fast growth.

The oysters are sterile, which means that instead of using their energy to reproduce, they use all of it to grow. That allows them to reach market size twice as quickly and be harvested year-round.

"It stays fat all the time," notes Tucker Brown, one of about two dozen oystermen collaborating with scientists on the project.

And when it comes time to plant these lab-bred oysters, says Dave White, a Maryland state biologist, "the watermen have a great input in it, because they're more familiar with the bottom than most of the researchers."
My problem with triploid oysters, and it's a small nonfatal one, is that triploid oysters are essentially a put and catch crop.  Triploid oysters are relatively time consuming and expensive to produce, and cannot reproduce on their own and increase the standing stock, and filtering capacity of oysters in the Bay.  So they're fine for an aquaculture crop, but they have limited ecological value.

That said, if all the oystermen would grow triploids instead of mining the native oysters, perhaps the oysters would recover on their own, but that would require a smarter and less rapacious  class of watermen than currently harvest from the Bay:
The scientists selected five acres where they will plant their specially bred oysters. But the site won't be marked in any way on the water. "We don't want anybody poaching on these oysters," explains Ellen Cosby, who oversees the project for the Fisheries Commission. "We know where it is with the GPS coordinates."

With a bushel — roughly 300 to 325 oysters — wholesaling for about $40, Cosby says "oyster pirates" can be a "real problem down in Virginia. We're hoping that everybody is kind of keeping an eye on things up here."
I'm also mildly perplexed that the NPR is essentially promoting a genetically modified organism (which is what these oysters are, though no one will say the words aloud), as NPRs liberal base is steadfastly opposed to GMOs in agriculture.

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