Maryland may be rushing crucial research on introducing Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, the states of Delaware and New Jersey said this week, joining several federal agencies in asking that the new species be studied further.
The states issued a statement saying that the Asian oyster is still "a virtual unknown" and could bring diseases or other ecological problems that would spread to their coasts.
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They urged officials in Maryland, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has been a vocal proponent of the Asian oyster, not to make a decision as scheduled early next year.
"I think their process would benefit from a little more deliberation," said Roy Miller, administrator of fisheries for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Maryland officials responded yesterday that they would not make any moves before they were sure the new oyster is safe.
"We are not going to introduce an oyster that we have questions about," said Secretary of Natural Resources C. Ronald Franks.
The two states' criticism marks a new turn in the saga of Crassostrea Ariakensis, a native of Southeast Asia that has recently caused unusual divisions within the staid world of shellfish management.
It has emerged as an issue now because the native oyster -- crucial to filtering the bay's waters and supporting its fleet of watermen -- has almost vanished from the Chesapeake.
Last year's native oyster harvest was about 23,000 bushels, less than 1 percent of the harvest from 30 years ago.
"We're so low that the next stop is zero," said W. Pete Jensen, an official with the Department of Natural Resources.
The Asian oysters are believed to be resistant to the diseases that have killed off native oysters in the Chesapeake. But scientists believe there are many potential problems -- even beyond the dinner-table prospects of an oyster that can resemble an orange portobello mushroom cap.
Scientists point to the havoc caused in the bay ecosystem by other nonnative species: The mute swan and beaverlike nutria chew up crucial grasses, and the toothy northern snakehead in the Potomac River has worried officials.
They worry that the Asian oysters could bring new diseases or adapt to the Chesapeake so well that they squeeze out native species of oysters and clams.
To answer such questions fully might take many years of research, according to reports by the National Academy of Sciences and three federal agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Julie Thompson, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said yesterday that the federal agencies were concerned that the Asian oyster would be impossible to remove once released in the wild.
"After it's done, it's going to be irreversible," she said.
Franks said yesterday that all the necessary research has been compressed into a year. That study, performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could be finished in the next couple of weeks, he said.
After that, Franks said, the data will be reviewed by a panel of experts appointed by Ehrlich and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
Based on their recommendations, Ehrlich and Warner will decide whether to move forward on the oysters or to request more research, Franks said.
Delaware and New Jersey will not have a say.