Maryland's hard shell

December 30, 2004

IN THE LATE 19th century, the "Oyster Wars" referred to the pitched battle over the lucrative oyster trade in the lower Chesapeake Bay between Virginia dredgers and "foreign" watermen from Maryland. How fitting that the 21st-century version of an oyster war pits Maryland against Delaware and New Jersey over a "foreign" oyster. True, no blood has been drawn, but the rhetoric certainly is flying.

The dispute stems from Maryland's apparent rush to seed the Chesapeake with millions of Asian oysters. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hasn't committed to the plan, but he wants a decision made within the next several months. That timetable is a concern to scientists who fear the complex implications of introducing a non-native oyster won't be discerned so quickly. And the rush to make a decision so soon suggests that Maryland's current research into Crassostrea ariakensis may prove little more than perfunctory.

Enter wildlife officials from Delaware and New Jersey who have announced their opposition to the potential introduction of Asian oysters in Maryland. They, too, fear Maryland's Department of Natural Resources is moving too quickly and worry that the oysters may be inadvertently introduced into Delaware Bay as a result and harm their own attempts to revive their native species of oyster. "It would appear these individuals [Maryland officials and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel] may have pre-judged the issue," the joint statement claims.

Ouch. Has Maryland's stature in the environmental community fallen so far that we deserve to get lectured by Delaware and New Jersey (combined number of EPA Superfund cleanup sites: 126) over how to manage the Chesapeake Bay? Maryland DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks insists that Maryland's research efforts are legitimate and issued a statement claiming the project "will not proceed if there are unacceptable risks."

Sounds great. But there is evidence already emerging that the risks may indeed be unacceptable. Scientists testifying at a congressional hearing two weeks ago said they are worried about some troublesome microorganisms that Asian oysters might bring with them. Certain bacteria found more often in Asian oysters than in the bay's native species can cause a form of food poisoning, for instance. The experts warned that the effects of Asian oysters on human health have not been adequately studied.

We hope Governor Ehrlich is listening to them. The potential benefits of a thriving Chesapeake Bay oyster population are significant, and perhaps the Asian oyster may ultimately prove to be the best hope to achieve that. But the potential for an ecological disaster is high, too. Everyone is hoping for a timely solution to the oyster crisis, but with so much at stake, speed must be paired with caution.

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