Sunday, August 2, 2009

River project offers new hope for oysters, researchers say

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Scientists say they've created something in a Virginia river that hasn't been seen since the late 1800s: a vast, thriving reef of American oysters, the shellfish that helped create the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem and then nearly vanished from it.

The reef sits on the bottom of the Great Wicomico River, a bay tributary about 80 miles southeast of Washington. The scientists say they found a better way to plant oysters, creating an 87-acre colony of bivalves that teems with other marine life.

That's a long way from bringing oysters back in all of the Chesapeake. Virginia and Maryland officials said this week that they doubted this success could be replicated widely.

But the oyster researchers said their work, published online Thursday in the journal Science, provides new hope for one of the bay's most beleaguered species. The oyster, depleted by overfishing, pollution and disease, has fallen to less than 1 percent of its historical population.

When an underwater camera hovered over the new reef, "we knew we were looking at something that no one had ever seen before" -- or at least, no one living -- said David Schulte, a researcher with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who worked on the project.

They saw small fish, blue crabs and oysters blowing out underwater "smoke rings," showing that they were filtering out algae and dirt. "That just had been something that hadn't been in the bay for more than a century," Schulte said. …

River Project Offers New Hope For Oysters, Researchers Say

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