Oyster stew

October 10, 2004

CHESAPEAKE BAY oysters aren't known for their speed, but the Ehrlich administration's plans for them are certainly moving fast. Too fast. That's the consensus in the scientific community. By next summer, Maryland could be home to millions of Asian oysters, a non-native species. These newcomers may prove to be a tremendous asset to the environment - or an ecological catastrophe. Which is it? Nobody can say for sure, and many doubt the answer can be known by March, when the state Department of Natural Resources plans to decide whether to seed the Chesapeake Bay with them.

The fact that the state would even ponder the introduction of a non-native species is evidence of the desperate condition of Maryland's once-bountiful oysters. This season, watermen will harvest fewer than 25,000 bushels of oysters, a tiny fraction of the 2 million bushels they used to harvest. Overfishing has no doubt played a part in this, but the chief culprits are the disease MSX and the Dermo parasite, which have wiped out huge numbers of adult oysters for the last two decades or so. The Asian oyster - a strain of the species Crassostrea ariakensis that's been cultivated on the Oregon coast for several decades - is resistant to these diseases.

But bringing in a new oyster to the Chesapeake represents a huge gamble. It's difficult to know the unintended consequences. Maryland has seen its share of non-native species, from the rat-like nutria that were imported for their fur but tear up valuable Eastern Shore marsh grasses to the "Frankenfish," the formidable northern snakehead that now appears to have established itself in the Potomac River. If an imported oyster succeeds, it may be a virtual death sentence for the weakened native oyster. Are we willing to give up so easily on our biological heritage?

A thriving oyster population would yield huge benefits, of course. Oysters are filter feeders and can clean the water of nitrogen, one of the bay's most troublesome pollutants. It's like having millions of little scrubbers working away, day and night. But might their Asian cousins prove as effective at this as the native species? Even that's not known.

Don't shut the door on the Asian oysters. Virginia has been studying this idea for years. But the Ehrlich administration shouldn't make any snap decisions, particularly when something as precious as the Chesapeake Bay oyster is involved.

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