SOLOMONS ISLAND, MD. -- Like clockwork, costly jets from the Patuxent Naval Air Test Station roar into blue skies over the Chesapeake Bay, irking marine scientists below who defend the world's largest estuary with a budget that is a fraction of the planes' cost.

"The Patuxent Naval Air Test Station burns enough fuel in a week for our whole annual budget here," said Kenneth Tenore, director of the small Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. "Give me a budget like that and I'll solve your {oyster} problem."

Despite a comparatively small $5 million budget, Tenore's lab -- one of three run by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarian Studies -- is packed with scientists whose work regularly ripples the state's political waters.

The Chesapeake laboratory, the oldest marine lab on the East Coast, has studied the bay since 1925, making the lab internationally known for its research on coastal seas, as estuaries are technically known.

Spain, through the U.S. State Department, conducts research with the lab on the effect of ocean currents on mussels.

Mexico has asked the lab to find out why seagrasses have been dying in the Gulf of Mexico, as seagrass did in the Chesapeake in the 1930s.

Costa Rica and France want to find the best way to regulate fish populations off their coasts.

Experts call the three-lab center a model for ecological research and political independence, making its data powerful ammunition in Annapolis. That image is being grafted onto a new center for policy planning, which could significantly affect the way Maryland treats the bay in coming years.

"It really is a matter of us providing the sort of technical input that influences the decisions," said Ian Morris, director of the U-Md. center. "We would be failing our mission if we didn't do that."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration has announced an ambitious aquaculture project that would create a potential $100 million hatchery industry in the bay. The plan is based on data from the Chesapeake lab and uses its staff to help rewrite the state's laws prohibiting fishing for striped bass and severely restricting the harvest of oysters.

A project by the lab last year documented high levels of nitrogen in the Patuxent River, prompting the state to pay $29 million toward construction of a new Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission sewage treatment plant.

"There should be no mistake: The state directs the programs," said Michael Haire, head of modeling and analysis at the Department of the Environment. "But there's no question in my mind that the University of Maryland's recommendations and their findings played a key role in that decision" to build the Patuxent plant.

The lab's policy center, run by Eric Schneider, has many ideas on the drawing board, including fish management methods used by foreign countries.

"Most of the work here is science for science's sake," Schneider said. "I've got no problem with that. But we need to go out, and reach out, to do something."

The Center for Environmental and Estuarian Studies employs about 200 people at three labs. The Chesapeake lab is home to an extensive library and two research ships, while the Horn Point Environmental Lab near Cambridge is home to the center's offices and projects to save bay oysters. The Appalachian Environmental Lab in Frostburg studies the Western Maryland environment.

The center, with a $12 million annual budget, is seeking private money to add to the federal and state grants on which it has depended. But Tenore, Morris and others said corporate grants must have no strings attached, emphasizing that independence is the labs' strength.

"Private money will also give the innovation," Morris said. "That's where science is at its best."

The labs are only as good as their scientists.

One of those scientists, Robert E. Ulanowicz, develops complex models of food chains that he calls the "food web" in the bay.

Robert Anderson came to the Chesapeake lab to help launch a new toxicology program. He is scrutinizing oysters' immune systems, hoping eventually to select qualities that resist MSX -- the salt-water, oyster-killing parasite brought into the bay this summer.

According to Tenore, Chesapeake Bay faces three major problems: an overabundance of nutrients, turbidity and toxic chemicals.

The nutrients, byproducts of everything from laundry detergent to farm pesticides, yield nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel what some researchers call the most pressing problem: the diminishing of oxygen in water at the bottom of the bay.

The problem of turbidity -- dirt, silt and general waste in the bay -- is being targeted by new laws designed to control coastal development.

Scientists are also studying toxins -- dangerous and possibly lethal chemicals coming mostly from industry, farms and cities.

Most researchers think the bay is salvageable, differing mainly on their degree of optimism.

"It will never be back to the way it was when Captain Smith sailed up the bay," Tenore said. "Man changes things. What we have to ask is how much change is acceptable."