U.S. calls for Asian oyster research

Federally funded studies may force delay in putting foreign species in bay

October 16, 2004|By Rona Kobell and Tom Pelton | Rona Kobell and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The federal government will spend $2 million for more research on whether to introduce Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay -- an infusion of money some critics hope will slow Maryland's aggressive timetable for taking action.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday that it is granting the funds to researchers in Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey.

Some of the 13 projects will examine whether Asian oysters might harbor diseases or parasites that could kill off the dwindling native oyster population.

The new studies -- expected to take one to three years -- come as Maryland is spending almost $2 million of its own money for research on Asian oysters that is to be completed this year.

Top officials of the state Department of Natural Resources had said they planned to decide by February whether to introduce the foreign species.

William P. "Pete" Jensen, an associate deputy secretary, said yesterday that state officials will consider the research available in February and decide then whether to act or to wait until the federally funded studies are complete.

"We appreciate that they have made the money available because they have funded a continuation of the work we started," Jensen said. "If we can make a good, well-informed decision in February, we will. If we can't, then we will extend the time period. ... We agree that we need the facts."

Chesapeake oysters, once an important part of the region's economy, have been decimated over several decades by over-harvesting, disease and pollution. In the last 22 years, the value of Maryland's oyster harvest has fallen from $22 million to $600,000, according to state figures.

The Ehrlich administration has said it wants to consider introducing the Asian oyster with the hope that it might repopulate the Chesapeake Bay, help long-suffering watermen and work as a natural filter to help clean the water.

But others worry it could become an out-of-control nuisance.

"Anytime you decide to introduce a non-native species, it is a very serious matter," said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

"We want to be able to protect the Chesapeake's ecology while we help sustain the oyster industry. But we need to have the facts first," Hogarth said.

DNR officials set a February deadline for completion of an environmental impact statement, saying they don't have years to wait for a revival of an oyster population ravaged by diseases.

They have pointed to initial research that shows the Asian oyster is resistant to Dermo and MSX, which have devastated the native populations.

But a report by the National Academy of Sciences last year recommended at least five more years of research before proceeding.

"It doesn't make sense to be concluding the environmental impact statement in 2005 when some of the research is just getting started," said NOAA oyster biologist Jamie King.

"It would be better to make a decision once all the information is in from the research that is getting under way now," King said.

Many scientists worry that the Asian oyster could edge out the remaining native oysters in competing for food. The federal funding, which was in the works for about a year but held up in Congress, will look into this concern.

Donald Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's two major bay research institutions, said the new federal funding was not a surprise because scientists had asked for more time and federal money last year.

Boesch said national and regional scientific experts believe the question of whether to introduce the Asian oyster deserves much more study.

"It was always in the mind of the scientific community and the federal agencies that this would be a multiyear process," Boesch said.

Kim Kaplan, spokeswoman for NOAA's marine fisheries service, said the grant award cannot stop Maryland officials from making a decision in February if they choose to do so.

"It is a state decision. This grant just allows research to be done on some high-priority questions," she said.

The issue

The Ehrlich administration has been saying Maryland needs to move quickly to return oysters to the Chesapeake Bay so they can filter pollutants and give struggling watermen a crop to harvest. The state is looking to an Asian species, Crassostrea ariakensis, to do that. But critics say more study is necessary. Now, the federal government is sending $2 million to pay for additional research.

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