Oyster plan puts science on shelf


Seafood: Experts decry the rush to import a non-native species, but that's not stopping the Ehrlich administration.

October 15, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

RON FRANKS, Maryland's secretary of natural resources, talks frequently about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s commitment to restore the Chesapeake Bay based on "good science."

So it is ironic that Franks' agency, faced with one of the biggest bay decisions ever, is pursuing a course that has universally dismayed scientists across the Chesapeake region.

The controversy, as The Sun's Rona Kobell reported last week, involves whether to let loose an Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, in the Chesapeake. The decision is largely in the hands of the state Department of Natural Resources.

"DNR's insistence on a decision by spring is a train wreck - even those scientists who feel ariakensis is the way to go don't think we can decide that soon," says Donald Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's two major bay research institutions.

The new oyster resists MSX and Dermo, diseases that, along with overfishing and habitat destruction, have brought the bay's native oysters to commercial extinction.

But introduction of a new species carries potential risks, from disease to overrunning native species and their habitats. Any such "mistake" could spread to states from New England to Texas that have healthy industries based on the same, native oyster found in the Chesapeake.

So, what is driving Maryland's insistence that by February it can finish all the science needed for a decision with hemispheric consequences?

A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences has said at least five years' more study are needed.

But many in the bay's oyster community feared the fix was in before DNR even began its study that could result in an irrevocable release of Asian oysters by next spring.

That's because of the high DNR official heading the study, William "Pete" Jensen. Jensen is an experienced fisheries manager, but he has always been foremost an ally of the seafood industry - to the point he was fired from DNR in 2001.

When Ehrlich was elected, Jensen was rehired - a sop to watermen and seafood processors who supported Ehrlich. Franks had no say in it.

Jensen's idea of good science is sometimes open to question. A decade ago, faced with calls to restrict oyster harvests, he produced some pie charts and bar graphs purporting to show there were nearly as many oysters in the bay as a century before.

Diseases were just killing them before they could mature, Jensen argued. It was absurd - at least half the bay's original oyster bars had long ago silted over - but the DNR never put forth data supporting its claims for outside experts to analyze.

Jensen also dismissed then as "fantasy" something scientists were all recognizing - that oysters filtered large quantities of pollution from the bay.

Nowadays, pumping for ariakensis, he goes to the opposite extreme, waving charts indicating oysters could, if returned to historic levels, remove more pollution than the total we are struggling to reduce from sewage, farms and dirty air.

And he blindly perpetuates the old wisdom that any native oysters we don't harvest will just die from disease.

Diseases do remain an obstacle to restoring native oysters, and a reason to keep researching ariakensis. But selective breeding is significantly improving natives' disease resistance.

And a recent study indicates that even with diseases, if Maryland had restricted oyster harvests as recently as three years ago, it would have many times today's impoverished shellfish populations.

On paper, DNR considers restoring the native oyster an alternative to ariakensis; but no one who has been lobbied by Jensen feels that's getting serious study.

There's no room for scientific discussion at DNR. Eric Schwaab, the progressive fisheries director, was let go. So was Vic Kennedy, a leading oyster scientist who let his subordinates speak freely about concerns with ariakensis. Gary Smith, who documented that Maryland's few native oyster sanctuaries are largely worthless, sited on unproductive bottoms watermen didn't care about harvesting, also is gone.

Proof of DNR's attitude on native restoration is its recent evisceration of a proposal to expand sanctuary areas, a move backed by bay oyster scientists and managers outside DNR.

Too many vital questions can't be resolved on DNR's timetable, and not just whether ariakensis poses a threat. Native oyster restoration has not been seriously explored; nor have we resolved many uncertainties about ariakensis that could save immense time and money if we decide to go with it.

Jensen may think he does watermen a favor or gives Ehrlich an environmental win in going for a quick fix to a problem 150 years in the making. But he just fuels skepticism, raises hopes unrealistically and invites lawsuits.

If the governor believes in science, he'd best tell DNR to start listening to the wider community of bay oyster experts.

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