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Asian Oyster Decision Delayed and Debated

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page AA16

A decision about whether to introduce a new species of Chinese oyster into the Chesapeake Bay has been put off a few months longer because of delays in a scientific study, Maryland officials say.

The study, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is intended to guide the governors of Virginia and Maryland as they decide whether to allow the oyster Crassostrea ariakensis to reproduce in the Chesapeake. First expected this month at the latest, the report is now due in June or July because of a delay in creating a computer model of how the oysters might spread and reproduce, officials said.

University of Maryland faculty assistant Chris Kelly examines oysters under a microscope at the Horn Point Laboratory. (Photos James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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Full Report

The prospect of a new oyster is already stirring controversy, though. In Annapolis, several state legislators have been pushing bills that would delay any oyster introduction to allow for more research. The worry, said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), is that the new oyster, which can grow to a mammoth eight inches across, will bring "eight-inch viruses."

The oyster debate is part of a larger, multibillion-dollar struggle to return the bay to its 1950s condition by 2010. Environmentalists say the effort has been consumed by bureaucracy that has allowed the bay to decay further.

Among the bay's problems, one of the worst has been the decline of the native oyster Crassostrea virginica, once so populous that its reefs poked out of the water. Even after European colonization, its harvests were bountiful enough that the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield was built on a foundation of discarded oyster shells.

But over the past three decades, the bay's oysters have been ravaged by pollution and a pair of diseases.

The pollution, from farms and sewage plants across the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, causes algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water. Oysters, unlike fish and crabs, can't swim away from "bad water" areas, so they are weakened or killed.

The diseases, one of them introduced when another strain of Asian oyster was placed in the bay decades ago, kill oysters before they grow large.

Combined, these factors have caused a stunning decline in Maryland oyster harvests: from about 2,600,000 bushels in 1974-75 to about 26,000 bushels last year.

The situation was summed up in January by Chris Judy, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Disease is in control," Judy said in testimony before a General Assembly subcommittee. "There is no solution."

In desperation, the two bay states have turned to the Chinese oyster, which has been grown for about 30 years in Oregon and is believed to be immune to the Chesapeake's oyster diseases. The hope is that the new species could take the native oyster's former role in the bay: as a moneymaker for watermen and a natural filter for polluted water.

As optimism about the new oyster has grown in the administration of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), pessimism has spread among scientists. Among their questions: Will the new oyster bring a new disease? Will it multiply so rapidly that it overtakes native species? Will it fail to multiply and instead die, leaving the bay no better off?

Previous outside studies have warned that perhaps more years of research are necessary before the oyster can be declared safe. But Maryland and Virginia have held the hope that the one-year study underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be sufficient. When the results are released this summer, they will be forwarded to an independent committee for an evaluation that is expected to take six weeks, said W. Pete Jensen, an official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

After that, Jensen said, the governors will choose from among eight options.

One is to introduce Chinese oysters and let them take off. Others include a moratorium on harvesting the native oyster, new efforts to restore the native bivalve and a combination of several strategies. Natural resources officials have pledged that they won't rush things and that they won't make any decision unless scientists agree.

Legislators in Annapolis are trying to hold the administration to that promise of patience. In the Senate, Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) and Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City) have proposed a bill that would delay introduction of the oysters until scientists are certain they are safe. In the House of Delegates, Franchot is pushing a similar bill, which may require a vote of the General Assembly before the oysters are introduced in Maryland waters.

After his subcommittee heard testimony from natural resources officials in January, Franchot said he came away with two conclusions. One, he said, was that the Ehrlich administration was trying to rush the oyster through because of a desire to find a "magic bullet" for the bay. The other, Franchot said, was that because of lingering problems with pollution and low-oxygen water, even a successful Chinese oyster would probably not provide that magic bullet.

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