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March 24, 2005

Oysters on The Half Shell and Other Investments

Tom McLaughlin

The Asian oyster, hailed as the savior of the Chesapeake by some, shows promise as a major component in the revitalization of the seafood industry, preliminary scientific investigations indicate. The industry, ravaged by the major decline in crab and oyster harvests, hopes Governor Robert Ehrlich (R., MD) will speed the research and approval process.

The oysters under consideration were acquired from the Pacific Northwest where they were introduced from southern Japan. They did not establish themselves in the area and were brought to experiment stations in Virginia and Maryland.

Research indicates the oysters will survive the dreaded MSX and Dermo diseases that have devastated the native bivalves. Tests in Chesapeake Bay locations indicate the survival rate exceeded 90 percent, while most of the native species succumbed.

The maturation rate of the Asians occurs after only one year depending on when they are planted, while the local oysters are marketable after three years. The timing of the planting is crucial in the determining the time of harvest. It is thought an early spring drop will hasten the growth rate because of the surge in aquatic flora.

Asian oyster served on the half shell and in jars have sold very well in test markets. There was no discernable difference between the native and the Asians in taste or appearance.

Therefore, the quick maturation rate, the non-susceptibility to disease and the marketability provide an investment opportunity worthy of further exploration.

These promising aspects also have negative possibilities.

One must be very cautious in the introduction of a non-native species. Witness the spread of kudzu in the United States or rabbits in Australia as examples of the environment gone awry.

The oysters are susceptible to an imported parasite known as Bonamia named after a bay in North Carolina. This killer migrated from the Pacific to the Cape Hatteras area. Early results indicate the malady will affect oysters in areas of ocean salinity only. Very preliminary test result indicate oysters farmed further up the bay should not be affected,

Another possibility is the mutation of the organism, which can then survive in the upper reaches of the bay. Either of these scenarios will bring a major economic loss to investments.

Political factors, especially in Maryland, may dictate enough research has been conducted and the green light given for the farming of the Asian oysters.

As market prices will be high at the outset before competition causes a downward trend, investors should place their funds with established concerns. Those with experience, access to boats and shucking houses, as well as labor well versed in the growing and harvesting of the shell fish, will be the first to reap the profits from the oysters provided biological problems do not manifest themselves.

Maryland and Virginia differ in the distribution process. Virginia, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, has designed eight concerns who are participating in the study. They have spent their own money and have purchased 100,000 oysters to work with in specific areas.

When the approval is given, these businesses may be at the forefront to plant and harvest the oysters, and hence, stand to make the most profit.

Maryland will distribute the spats throughout the upper bay and everyone will be given an equal opportunity to harvest these critters. However, studies are still underway and firm decision has not yet been made on the distribution procedures. For possible investment opportunities in the Virginia Asian oyster market, contact Francis Porter, Virginia Seafood Council at 757-595-6603, or on the web at

Native oysters that have been bred to withstand both Dermo and MSX have been developed by a private Maryland concern known as the Circle C Oyster Ranch in Ridge, MD. Following the practice of Frank Perdue in the chicken industry, trays of spats are given to watermen. They in turn raise the oysters to a marketable size in Chesapeake Bay waters and then sell them back to Circle C, who will then sell them to buyers such as restaurants.

Since the oysters are native to the Chesapeake Bay, no scientific research is needed and there is an established concern ready for investment opportunities. The further research needed before the Asian Oyster becomes marketable allows the Circle C to have a jump start on the market. For opportunities contact Muphen R. Whitney at 301-873-5255.

Both oyster varieties provide for a rejuvenation of the Chesapeake Bay and the oyster industry. They will require substantial investment from the private sector with returns depending on both biological and market factors. Both warrant further investigation but the time for preliminary outlay for this venture has arrived.

(Editor's Note: The political and scientific world of the oyster is constantly changing and investors must perform their own research before committing funds to these ventures.)

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