Gilchrest, Sarbanes question state's push for Asian oysters

Md. lawmakers concerned over haste to introduce non-native species to bay

October 06, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Two members of Congress from Maryland are questioning the Ehrlich administration's push to put Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay to replace a native population that has been all but wiped out by disease.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest will meet today in Washington with scientists working on an environmental impact study that Maryland is conducting with Virginia and the Army Corps of Engineers. Aides say the Eastern Shore Republican is worried that the state is moving too fast to introduce a non-native species that could cause harm in the long run.

"We're really focused on the wisdom of introducing the non-native oyster," said Edith Thompson, Gilchrest's legislative assistant. "We're not sure what science is being pursued in the name of this environmental impact study and whether it can be done in the time frame that Maryland put forth."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is concerned about the limited scope of that research, aides say. The Maryland Democrat is working with Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, on legislation that would direct the Corps of Engineers to study ways to try to restore native oysters rather than turning to a foreign species.

"I think there's virtually unanimous agreement that the corps should look at native oysters," said Charlie Stek, Sarbanes' projects director. "The question now is for us to try and address that."

At issue is the determination of top Maryland natural resources officials to introduce Crassostrea ariakensis - an oyster native to China that can grow as large as a dinner plate - into the bay. The state expects to complete the environmental study by the end of this year and to make its decision in February. Unless the study raises new concerns, state officials say they will move forward at that time.

William "Pete" Jensen, an associate deputy secretary of natural resources, has said it is imperative that the state move quickly to replace native oysters that have been ravaged by disease over the past few decades.

He says the new oysters could filter huge loads of pollution. And watermen would have an oyster crop to harvest again.

But many scientists say acting with haste could be reckless because non-native species often harm the environment.

It's not clear that the federal government could stop Maryland if the state decides to introduce Asian oysters into bay waters. Maryland probably won't need a corps permit if it introduces "culchless" oysters, which would go into the bay without shell material.

But the federal, multi-agency Chesapeake Bay Program is reviewing whether introducing a non-native oyster would violate the Clean Water Act.

Among the scientists briefing Gilchrest today will be Robert Whitlatch, a Connecticut marine sciences professor who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied the Asian oyster last year. That panel said that at least five years of research should be completed before any decision to introduce Asian oysters.

Initial research has shown that the Asian oyster appears resistant to the two diseases that have devastated the bay's native oyster. But scientists worry that the Asian oyster could introduce new diseases, out-compete with the native oysters for food and grow so out of control that it becomes a nuisance species.

Whitlatch is also worried that the Asian oyster would spread to the Long Island Sound and other coastal waters. "I've made a strong argument that this issue is not simply a Chesapeake Bay issue. It's an East Coast-wide issue," he said.

Sarbanes and Warner, meanwhile, have introduced language into an appropriations bill that would clarify the corps' role in the Asian oyster study.

Congress passed a bill this year authorizing the corps to supervise the environmental impact statement at Maryland's request and gave the corps about $200,000 to begin its work.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, such a study must include several alternatives to the proposed action. State Natural Resources Department documents list eight alternatives to introducing non-sterile Asian oysters. Among them: expand native restoration programs, implement a temporary moratorium on harvesting native oysters and establish aquaculture programs to raise oysters.

But a few months ago, the corps told Congress it wasn't looking into those options. Its scientists wanted to pursue them, officials said, but its lawyers interpreted Congress' language to mean the agency could only look at the Asian oyster.

"I would like to look at all the options," said Peter Kube, the environmental scientist leading the corps study. "But the corps has said that Congress has told us not to."

He called Maryland's schedule of finishing the research this year "aggressive" but said the corps is working to meet it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.