ANNAPOLIS – The introduction of the Asian oyster and a temporary harvest moratorium are two alternatives proposed to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population in a joint federal and state environmental impact study released Tuesday.
The purpose of the study was to identify the best strategies for restoring self-sustaining oyster populations in the bay to the 1920 through 1970 levels. The report does not offer a definitive recommendation.
The statement, developed by the federal government, Maryland and Virginia, outlines eight alternatives, two of which have already been rejected.
Officials from Maryland remain concerned with the risks of introducing the Asian oyster and have not made a decision on a new course for oyster restoration, said Tom O’Connell, fisheries service director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy both advocate for restoration of the native oyster, and believe that the risks are too high to introduce a non-native species.
“Given the available information, the combination of native oyster aquaculture and enhanced native restoration clearly provides the best potential for progress with the least amount of risk,” William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a press release.
Proponents argue that the Asian oyster grows faster and is resistant to the diseases that have affected the native oyster. But questions remain over whether the Asian oyster could out-compete and displace the native oyster.
“No one knows,” said Brian Rothschild, Montgomery Charter Professor at the University of Massachusetts and a member of the Oyster Advisory Committee. “The best guess is that they would co-exist.”
A final decision could involve a combination of expanding the native oyster restoration program, introducing the Asian oyster and implementing a temporary harvest moratorium which could include an oyster industry buy-out program in both states.
Although, costs have not been determined for each alternative, they could range from $500 million to $700 million over a ten-year period, depending upon which combination of alternatives is implemented.
Oysters are crucial to the bay’s overall health and restoration because they filter water and provide a habitat for other aquatic species. Overharvesting and disease have significantly reduced the population.
The report is the most thorough assessment of oyster biology and restoration strategies ever studied for the Chesapeake Bay. The study involved approximately 90 scientists and has been under way for five years.
A 60-day review period begins Friday and includes six public meetings in Maryland and Virginia. A final environmental impact statement with a preferred alternative or combination of alternatives will be published in April 2009, and a final decision will be made in June.