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York River oyster project to test viability of aquaculture industry

US - In 18 months to two years, the mesh bags of baby oysters recently scattered into Virginia's York River could yield hundreds of bushels of market-size oysters-and herald a new way of doing business.

To reach that point, the 2 million spat planted in August will have to survive the forces that have depleted stocks of the briny catch in the Chesapeake Bay-disease, pollution and, more recently, cownose rays. If they do, it could demonstrate whether aquaculture is a viable option for the oyster industry.

"This is an alternative way to keep oystermen oystering and watermen on the water," said Tommy Leggett, an oyster specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The fingernail-size spat are the offspring of two strains of native oysters bred to withstand damage from disease-causing parasites Dermo and MSX. As another precaution, the spat were allowed to attach to 200 bushels of natural oyster shells while soaking in nursery tanks. The 3-4 inch-long shells make it harder for the predatory rays to scoop up tasty young.

An expected yield would be 300 to 400 bushels of market-size oysters worth just enough to offset the $12,000 cost of the project, said Lake Cowart Jr., head of Cowart Seafood Corporation, near Lottsburg.

Cowart, who supplied a portion of his leased oyster grounds to grow the oysters, is a partner in the effort designed to advance aquaculture. The Bay Foundation and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are the other principals in the state grant financed through the sale of Chesapeake Bay vehicle license plates.

He believes the survival of Virginia's oyster industry depends on aquaculture techniques such as these. He is raising millions of sterile native oysters in Northern Neck waterways in floats that keep out rays and accelerate shellfish growth.

Source: Bay Journal