ANNAPOLIS – The introduction of non-native Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay would not by itself clean up the bay, according to most experts who testified at a hearing Wednesday.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the Department of Natural Resources are pushing for an accelerated evaluation and introduction of the Asian oysters, arguing that reintroduction of native oysters has not been successful and that oysters are essential to clean the bay and to sustain bay oysterman.
The oysters’ advocates claim the Suminoe variety are larger, thrive in waters similar to the bay and appear to resist diseases plaguing native oysters.
Virginia has been experimenting with confined and sterile Asian oysters, which grow to market size within one year, while the natives take three years.
Oysters are essential for the ecosystem, filtering water as they feed. Scientists have estimated that the population of native oysters in the bay is now only 0.2 percent of what it was around 1900 because of two diseases — MSX and dermo — pollution, and overfishing.
W. Peter Jensen, associate deputy secretary at the Department of Natural Resources, said that if the state does not act rapidly to introduce Asian oysters to restore the population, “there’s a danger that someone gets so frantic they do it on their own.”
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Transportation and the Environment subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said he just didn’t think the possibility of a rogue introduction was justification for rushing approval of Asian oysters.
“It seems that nobody likes this idea except for you guys.”
Franchot said he will introduce a bill this session with two components: mandating introduction of any non-native species be done by commonly recognized scientific criteria and requiring General Assembly approval for any non-native species introduction.
The Department of Natural Resources, Virginia, and the Army Corps of Engineers are developing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the oysters.
Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, subcommittee vice chairwoman, wondered what the Asian oyster, previously introduced to Oregon, was doing to native oysters there.
Tom O’Connell, program manager of the Environmental Impact Statement, said the Asian oysters hadn’t done well in Oregon and so were simply kept in hatcheries.
James said her concern was that politicians would be left weighing the relative merits of different scientific studies.
“What are we legislators to do?” she asked. “That puts us in a real spot. I’m a lawyer. It drives me crazy in court to have competing expert testimony.”
The National Research Council and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the Chesapeake Bay Program have studied the introduction of Asian oysters and have concluded that extensive further study is needed because the risks — the environmental and economic cost of introducing the non-native oysters if that turns out to be a mistake — outweigh the potential benefit.
MSX, a devastating oyster disease, may have been brought to the bay a half-century ago when a different non-native oyster was introduced from Japan, Franchot said.
Non-native species cost U.S. taxpayers more than $130 billion a year, more than earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters, said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Furthermore, as Jamie King, oyster specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, young oysters go through a planktonic stage — drifting for long distances — giving Asiatic oysters the potential to travel and cause problems up and down the whole Atlantic coast.
Wolf-Dieter N. Busch, an environmental consultant, said state and federal agencies must stop dragging their feet in effecting bay clean up.
“The (anti-pollution) laws have been in effect 25 years. If this is not done, neither native nor non-native oysters will survive.”
Franchot said in trying “to return the bay to the jewel it once was, we’d like to wave a magic wand. You’re saying the real issue is the health of the bay — otherwise we’re kidding ourselves.” – 30 – CNS-1-19-05