Officials pledge to shell out funds for oyster hatchery

O'Malley, Busch to seek $9 million in budget for Horn Point research

March 13, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE -- Gov. Martin O'Malley spent yesterday afternoon peering into tanks filled with spawning oysters, part of an effort to learn what the state can do to help bring back the struggling species.

O'Malley led an entourage of suit-clad politicians through the concrete corridors at the University of Maryland's Horn Point hatchery, all the way asking the scientists who work there why the Chesapeake Bay's native oyster population became so scarce and how they can be revived.

It was Oysters 101, Horn Point-style, with hatchery manager Donald W. "Mutt" Meritt leading the tour and offering frank assessments of the oysters' health.

In Meritt's assessment, the native oyster is hanging on, despite two highly contagious parasitic diseases - MSX and Dermo - that have killed much of the population. Meritt's hatchery is working to repopulate the bay using a hatchery-produced oyster that is bred to be more resistant to the diseases. The hatchery produced 350 million oysters last year and planted them in the bay.

To make a difference in the bay, Meritt said, the scale has to be greater. He thinks Horn Point could produce a billion oysters in a year if it had new setting tanks and a new dock, which would cost about $9 million.

O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who was also on yesterday's tour, pledged to put that request in the capital budget.

O'Malley also asked Meritt and the scientists about Asian oysters, which are being studied under quarantine in another part of the Horn Point lab.

The Ehrlich administration pushed to introduce the foreign species into the bay and once said it hoped to have them in the water by 2005. Many scientists along the Atlantic Coast said that such a fast introduction would be reckless.

They said more research needed to be done to make sure the Asian oyster would not bring in a new disease, especially because many scientists believe that a non-native introduction in the 1950s brought the deadly parasite MSX into the bay. They worried that the Asian oyster could infect healthy oyster populations in other coastal areas, should it spread beyond the bay.

Yesterday, Meritt told the governor that he didn't know whether those questions could be answered with certainty.

"I look at the Asian oyster as a potential tool. Whether or not it will survive in the bay remains to be seen," he said. "Some lucky politician is going to have to make the decision to go forward with it or not to go forward."

O'Malley was not inclined to make that decision yesterday, noting the Asian oyster research that the state and federal government began near the beginning of Ehrlich's term will not be completed until later this year.

"I'm open-minded, but I'm very encouraged with the progress we have been making with our native oyster," O'Malley said. "We look forward to hearing what the scientists say."

Busch was more critical of the Ehrlich administration's Asian oyster focus.

"I think they should have invested the money we're going to invest in the native oyster to improve the bay," he said. "If the Asian oyster gets in there and has a negative effect, you're never going to get it out. You'll lose all your opportunity for the native oyster."

Regardless of O'Malley's position on oysters, the scientists were impressed that he went to the lab. Politicians tend to visit scientific facilities only when they have a project to announce. And the lab is on the Eastern Shore, an area that has long felt snubbed by state officials in both parties.

"He's engaged and interested," said William C. Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which runs the hatchery. "He has got a tremendous amount of brainpower at his disposal. He's talking to the people who wrote the book on oysters, literally."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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