FASTER THAN an act of Congress, more powerful than a county zoning board, able to clean huge portions of the Chesapeake Bay in a single gulp. Is it a governor? Is it an environmental lobby? No, it's the Superoyster from the Pacific rim that state officials in Maryland and Virginia hope can help restore the bay's ecological balance.
It's almost too tantalizing a prospect to spoil by asking a lot of questions. But sadly, that's the only way to avoid the risk of some ghastly contamination from an alien species that might turn out to be not at all friendly to the local environment.
A National Academy of Sciences report concluded last week that the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, may indeed have potential to buttress the bay's ailing native shellfish population, yielding rich economic as well as environmental benefits. Much more research is required, however, the report said, before the Asian oysters should be allowed go forth in the bay and multiply. As much as five years' worth.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s. administration is promising to do the necessary research, but accelerate the timetable. The Army Corps of Engineers will oversee preparation of an environmental impact statement by various federal, state, and regional agencies of three states as well as private groups, while additional study is conducted to address scientific issues raised in last week's report.
Their slogan is "be quick, but don't hurry," said Mike Slattery, of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. They should also remember the maxim about haste and waste.
One of the diseases now ravaging native bay oysters is blamed on Japanese cousins introduced to the bay as the miracleoysters of the 1950s.
Oysters are a vital species for the bay because they filter the water. They consume those hateful algae blooms now covering much of the bay's surface, blocking out the sun and choking off oxygen to creatures beneath. The bay's degradation can be blamed on several major sources of pollutants, but the devastation would not be so great if the native oyster population was thriving.
Depletion of bay oysters has also put a huge strain on the seafood industry, undermining the livelihood of watermen and encouraging them to rely too heavily on the already burdened crab population.
In the Virginia portion of the bay, where the oyster strain has been greatest, officials are preparing to soon introduce one million sterile versions of the Asian oyster in a carefully controlled experiment to see if they prove to be as hearty and disease-resistant as touted. The National Academy of Sciences endorsed that cautious approach.
But in Maryland, the Ehrlich team is eager to get an Asian oyster breeding operation going in the bay, initially projecting that it be possible as soon as next year.
That schedule seems foolhardy. Before sending Superoysters on a rescue mission, it's worth making sure they won't act like Kryptonite on the rest of the bay.