ANNAPOLIS – Trying to reverse the damage done to the Chesapeake Bay’s disease-ravaged oyster stocks, one legislator hopes to speed the introduction of a fast-growing, disease-resistant Chinese oyster to the bay.
The state could begin its own testing of the oyster, rather than waiting for completion of a National Academy of Sciences study, under legislation introduced by Delegate Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot.
The $313,000, 15-month study, which started last July, was jointly funded by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Sea Grant and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.
The foreign oysters, known as Suminoe oysters, may be the key to restoring the bay’s oyster fishery, proponents said, but there are unanswered questions about what effect introducing the non-native species could have on the environment.
Concerns that the new oyster could push out indigenous species, or that it could introduce a new disease, were big worries, but the state needs to move ahead with tests so those risks can be assessed, said Ed Farley, captain of the skipjack H. M. Krentz.
The academy’s report is due out this summer, and the DNR’s is due in December 2004.
Helped by three years of drought, two parasites – MSX and dermo – have decimated native oyster stocks, causing harvests to plummet from more than 1.5 million in 1986, to likely less than 50,000 this year.
This year’s harvest could set a record low, showing the native oyster population is just too far gone to support the watermen, said Michael Hayden, captain of the skipjack Nellie L. Byrd.
“Every year, you think you’re going to have a few oysters, but the next summer they die,” Hayden said. “It’s going to be at least 3 years before we have oysters again.”
Searching for ways to save the native oyster has become too political, he said, and the state should start work on bringing in the Suminoes.
The law governing studies of non-native oysters stays very close to the National Academy of Sciences study, Schisler said, but there is some research that can and should be done before that study is completed.
However, he said, the research should be tailored to prevent the accidental widespread introduction of the new species.
“It’s important to me that we not be cavalier about the non-native oyster,” Schisler said. “(But) we need to investigate all the potential (risks and benefits).”
Both in-state pressures and faster-moving programs in Virginia and North Carolina are pushing the state to speed up its own program, Farley said.
“Are we being overly cautious, or are we being properly cautious,” he asked.
“Anytime you’ve got a harvestable resource, all the players need to stay in step, or someone gets left behind.”
The bill isn’t too controversial, as long as any in-water tests conducted under its mandate are properly controlled to prevent the incidental introduction of the foreign oyster, said William Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Applying the same biosecurity precautions that Virginia used for its tests, including using only certified sterile oysters, should be a requirement for in-water tests, he said.