[Chesapeake Quarterly masthead]
2006
Volume 5, Number 2
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The MSX Files
Unmasking an
Oyster Killer

Contents

Lessons of History:
Hubris and Humility

The Culture of Diseases

The Missing Link

New Underwater Grasses Guide


The James River Reserve Fleet (shown right), often called the Ghost Fleet, dates back to 1925. By 1950, it held 800 ships, many of them reactivated for the Korean, Vietnam, and first Gulf wars. Like the oyster, the fleet has dwindled — only 57 now remain. Photograph by Michael W. Fincham.

The Mystery Invasion
of Chesapeake Bay
Could a 'ghost fleet' of crumbling warships have anything to do with a disease that has ravaged native oysters for nearly half a century? Naval destroyer and other ships that are part of the ghost fleet - photo Michael W. Fincham

By Michael W. Fincham

Coming fast across the water he can see the old fleet floating at permanent anchor. Gene Burreson is riding shotgun in a small runabout that is slicing straight across the James River, headed for the world's largest mothball fleet, an armada of decaying Navy ships that are clearly headed nowhere.

Tall, big-boned, and hatless, Burreson squints against the bright sun bouncing off the water. At 6'4" he towers over his boat driver and three assistants crouching in the forward cockpit for the bouncy ride across the river. From here the ships are a distant scraggle of grey hulks humped up against a brown-green river and distant, dark green trees.

Burreson is an oyster biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and his target today is not the fleet but what lies beneath. Along the bottom of the river, sprawled under and around and south of the Navy ships are huge oyster reefs with names like Deep Water, Horsehead and Wreck Shoals. Reefs like these once made the James River the mother lode for new seed oysters for Chesapeake Bay. "It's amazing," Burreson tells his crew, "they've got this reserve fleet anchored over what were once the most productive oyster grounds in the world."

Closing with the fleet, Burreson and his crew find mothballed ships lashed together side by side, with sharp, pointed bows tied to fat, round sterns. The U.S. Maritime Administration calls this collection the James River Reserve Fleet. Locals call it "the Ghost Fleet." These rusting hulls carried men and women and weapons to World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Several ships made it to the first Gulf War. Now they float here, motionless, empty of people and cargo, their waterlines riding high above the river. Up top they carry a jungle gym of smoke stacks and radar dishes and radio towers with no signals to send. From the window of a control bridge sunlight flares out like a cannon flash from a long-forgotten battle.

Running close along the line of ships, Burreson starts to rouse his crew. "I'm worried about the Coast Guard coming out. They only arrest the chief scientist," he says. The low-key joke, delivered in his bottom-key voice, seems to work. His lab assistants, three young women in sunglasses, sunblock, and baseball caps, start pulling out dredging gear. It's time to go to work.

There's a long-standing mystery about the oyster reefs along the James River. The mother lode is still there, but most of the oysters hauled out of these waters never make it to market. When these upriver oysters are replanted downriver they are supposed to grow fat and salty. Now, however, they shrivel up and die, many of them victims of a parasite called MSX.

The dying started about 50 years ago. And it started suddenly and massively over most of the southern Chesapeake. That's one part of the mystery. The dieoffs eventually spread north, reaching from the James River all the way up to the Bay Bridge.

And no one could figure out where this MSX parasite came from. That's another part of the mystery. That's one of the questions that first brought Burreson out to these reefs.

But it would be years before he guessed how the Ghost Fleet could be part of the answer.

When MSX invaded Delaware Bay, it bankrupted oyster growers and landed their boats on the beach. Photograph by Michael Hogan/hoganphoto.com.
The Bessie L, a rusting boat.  Photograph by Michael Hogan


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