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Virginia scientists to spy on bay oysters

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Attention Chesapeake Bay oysters: Big Brother will soon be watching you.

To determine how valuable a foodstuff oysters are to blue crabs and finfish, scientists will place the celebrated mollusk under surveillance this summer.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science researchers will use a high-tech camera system to watch afar as blue crabs, cownose rays and other predators feast on the staid bivalve.

“It allows us to do something that has not been done before,” said Rom Lipcius, the VIMS professor leading the effort.

VIMS researchers will use the cameras in the York, Piankatank, Lynnhaven and Great Wicomico rivers. They will gather data anywhere from a few hours to a few days before researchers move the cameras to a new location.

Unlike scuba-diving and other methods, the camera system is relatively non-invasive, which should provide an uninterrupted view of oyster reefs. Lipcius said.

Oysters are recognized for improving the bay’s water quality — mature oysters can filter 50 gallons of water a day. Reefs are valuable habitats and the commercial fishery contributes millions of dollars to the region’s economy.

But scientists don’t know how valuable oysters are to blue crabs — another valuable commercial fishery — and other fish.

If the VIMS effort proves that blue crabs, an opportunistic feeder, rely on oysters, it could help Lipcius and other scientists argue for more support to rebuild the bay’s oyster reefs.

Scientists have been trying for decades to rejuvenate the reefs, which have been devastated by diseases and overfishing, but they haven’t been very successful.

Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lipcius claimed to have found a solution two years ago, building a supersized reef that sits well above the bay floor. While the reef’s success is doubted by state officials and other scientists, Lipcius believes it could be a model to rebuild the oyster population.

A potential roadblock is the cost; supersized reefs cost roughly $34,000 an acre to build, much more than traditional reefs.

Virginia last year eliminated oyster restoration funding, which shifts the burden largely to the federal government and other states, such as Maryland.