Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly attributed a statement about the proposal to transplant Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay. A letter that said "what we need is not a new oyster" was written by the Nature Conservancy, not the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Oyster Decision Could Alter Bay

Critics of the plan to add Asian oysters, above, to the Chesapeake say they could do further harm to the native Eastern oysters.
Critics of the plan to add Asian oysters, above, to the Chesapeake say they could do further harm to the native Eastern oysters. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sometime in the next few days, three men will make a decision that comes awfully close to playing God with the Chesapeake Bay.

The officials -- Cabinet secretaries from Virginia and Maryland and a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- will choose whether the estuary should get a new oyster. Seafood interests want to transplant an Asian species to supplement the decimated Eastern oyster, which can no longer fill its role in the bay's ecosystem and the region's deep-fat fryers.

A lot of people think the answer should be no.

Environmental groups, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say it's not clear whether the new oyster would become a kind of kudzu on the half shell, crowding out the old one, or simply die and waste everyone's money.

For now, the officials seem split. One is leaning against the Asian oyster, one is neutral and a third supports it, at least if the oyster is confined to shellfish farms.

Their choice could alter the Chesapeake in a way few recent decisions have. Once an animal that can lay 10,000,000 eggs is set loose, it's loose.

"There's no real experience in an open aquatic system like Chesapeake Bay . . . of completely removing a non-native species," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "So it really is a point of no return."

A favorable ruling could pave the way for watermen and shellfish farmers to put millions of the Asian oysters in the Chesapeake. That makes it the most important decision in a long regional debate -- all arising from the odd-sounding idea that one of America's great shellfish grounds needs a Chinese transplant to save it.

"This is the moment we've been waiting for, you know, 10 years. . . . We will potentially be looking back on this for decades to come, either with fondness or regret," said Bill Goldsborough of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Chesapeake's Eastern oysters, which once filtered its water and provided a living for generations of watermen, have dropped 99 percent below historic levels, because of overfishing and a pair of diseases.

But Goldsborough said he thinks the Asian oyster is too much of a risk.

"It's like saying, 'We're going to replace our black bear with a panda bear from China, and assume the forest ecosystem is going to be fine,' " he said.

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