They came, they spoke, they pondered, more than 200 scientists, bureaucrats, environmentalists and others with a common interest: the precious marshlands around the edges of the Chesapeake Bay.

But after all was said and done at a three-day conference this week, they had agreed on little more than the need for more cooperation and research.

The data showed that 16 percent of the wetlands have vanished from the Bay region in three decades. Experts at the conference organized by the Washington-based Environmental Law Institute said the wetlands not only provide a habitat for wildlife but also act as a filter to limit the amounts of sediment and oxygen-robbing nutrients entering the estuary.

But Richard P. Novitski, a hydrology expert with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the conference even failed to answer the "very significant question: what function do wetlands perform."

The answer requires knowledge of "the water budget, determining precipitation, overland flow, stream flow, injection of groundwater," information that he said is still lacking.

The answer would not be forthcoming, he suggested, "until we take a holistic approach . . . look at uplands and wetlands . . . some agency, somebody, somewhere, is going to have to decide what would be the ideal study."

"There's great scientific uncertainty on every issue," noted Thomas de Moss, director of technical support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new estuarine protection project.

But Kevin Sullivan, consultant and technical director of Maryland's new Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission, said he was "struck not by the lack of information but by the tremendous amount of information out there.

"The issue," he said, "is the more difficult question of reconciling competing and conflicting interests in coastal areas." That, in part, is what the commission created last year is supposed to do: overseeing and, in many cases, stopping shoreline development.

Sullivan invoked "the principle of equal suffering." Under the commission, he said, "every interest group in a critical area is probably going to be hurt a touch, but we hope the public good will prevail."

What constitutes the public good is also debatable. Will Baker, executive director of the environmentalist Chesapeake Bay Foundation, decried what he saw as a "resurgence of the finger-pointing mentality" among different groups with a stake in the future of the bay.

The Eastern Shore farmer, he said, complains about industry in Baltimore and Hampton Roads ruining the estuary; the industrialist complains about sewage treatment plants, "and all those people say it's the farmers' fault" for using chemicals and draining wetlands, "and the circle is complete."

Still others, looking for another scapegoat, Baker said, point to Pennsylvania, the state through which the Susquehanna River flows before it empties in the Chesapeake. It accounts for half the fresh water in the bay.

"Only when all the factions sit down in cooperation will we be able to move forward and improve the resources of the bay," said Timothy N. Hall, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis.

Courtney Stevenson, of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory, chastised the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies for what he said was a "bunker mentality" about wetlands.

"The biggest problem for the Chesapeake Bay is that we're developing many, many upland areas, and that's putting more pressure on wetlands. But there's this entrenched position in agencies that wetlands are more and more important. We should look at the whole landscape and not just expect the wetlands to clean up what's done in the uplands. The fundamental problem is population growth."

Yet another problem for wetland or marshland preservation, Stevenson said, is the very gradual rise of sea level that scientists say is occurring. He questioned why Baker's foundation had opposed state legislation that would have included wetlands within the purview of the state critical areas commission.

Baker said the section applying to wetlands had been deleted from the bill. "I thought it was a bill to prevent the sea level rise," joked Stevenson.

Said panel moderator William M. Eichbaum, assistant secretary for environmental programs in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, "Here on the Eastern Shore, all things are possible.