Can Oysters With No Sex Life Repopulate The Chesapeake Bay? : The Salt Scientists and watermen have joined forces to plant underwater farms in the Chesapeake with a special oyster bred to be sterile. Instead of using energy to reproduce, these oysters use it all to grow — twice as fast as normal.

Can Oysters With No Sex Life Repopulate The Chesapeake Bay?

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. In the late 19th century, Chesapeake Bay was the site of the world's largest oyster industry. But pollution, disease and over-harvesting have nearly wiped out the oyster population. Virginia and Maryland are trying new ways to resurrect the industry. Pamela D'Angelo has this story about an oyster farm and the team of former rivals who are working on it.

PAMELA D'ANGELO, BYLINE: On a recent morning a group of scientists and watermen share coffee and donuts as they navigate the Potomac River. A few years ago, they would've been arguing over how best to manage the oyster. A century ago, they might've even shot each other. But today, they're working together searching for the perfect spot to plant baby oysters. Captain Dave White, a Maryland state biologist, steers the research boat Miss Kay as he plots sites on a trio of screens above his wheel.

DAVE WHITE: The watermen have a great input in it because they're more familiar with the bottom than most researchers.

D'ANGELO: Decades ago, watermen took hundreds of thousands of bushels of oysters a year from the Potomac. Jim Wesson, the lead scientist from Virginia, says now they're lucky to get a few thousand. But that might change. The group is planting a special oyster created in a lab. Instead of reproducing, the oyster uses all its energy to grow. It reaches market size twice as fast and can be harvested year round.

JIM WESSON: And those oysters are selected for disease tolerance, fast growth. They're beginning to select them for nice cups, but they're just like selecting for a Holstein cow.

D'ANGELO: About two dozen oystermen are working with state scientists. And it's more than just a partnership. The fishermen are each paying $1,500, along with $150,000 put up by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. One of the oystermen is 74-year-old Tucker Brown from Maryland.

TUCKER BROWN: And this oyster stays fat all the time. And this is the beauty part especially whether you eat it on a half shell or however you want to see it.

D'ANGELO: Anchored over a graveyard of oyster shells, Wesson and the other scientists paw through empty shells brought up by a giant claw-like scoop. Wesson shakes his head.

WESSON: There's not a single live oyster in it. Nothing's going to happen here if you don't do something like this.

D'ANGELO: Captain White plots five acres but it won't be marked on the water. With a bushel wholesaling for about $40, Ellen Cosby is nervous about modern day pirates. She oversees the project for the Fisheries Commission.

ELLEN COSBY: We don't want anybody poaching on these oysters, so their location is not marked. We know where it is with the GPS coordinates but they have a real problem down in Virginia. We're hoping that everybody's kind of keeping an eye on things up here.

D'ANGELO: Back in the old days, you'd be like what, shooting cannons off the top...


D'ANGELO: It took about a year for 20 watermen to commit to the three-year project. They planted the first four acres of river bottom last year. Brown was there from the beginning.

BROWN: Once all of us got to the table and everybody looked at one another and when we started talking, everybody knew, nobody had to say a word, that we were going to be a team.

D'ANGELO: Wesson and Cosby measure samples of last year's plantings. A majority survived but aren't market size. Still, as the group heads to shore, they remain optimistic.

BROWN: We don't have the education that the scientists have. They don't have the education that we have out here, too.

D'ANGELO: If all goes well, the oysters will be ready in time for the big demand of the holidays. Until then, the team will worry about predators, poachers and the weather. For NPR News, I'm Pamela D'Angelo.

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