The federal government is starting an unprecedented study of proposals to introduce Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, part of a desperate attempt by Maryland and Virginia to replace a native shellfish population all but wiped out by disease.
Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency say they believe it's the first time that federal officials have considered whether it's a good idea to introduce a foreign species into a body of water and encourage it to reproduce.
Such introductions -- almost always by accident -- can be fraught with peril. For example, zebra mussels carried in ballast water from ships that visited Asia have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes. One of the two diseases killing the Chesapeake Bay's native oysters arrived here in a Japanese mollusk in the 1950s.
"Science will dictate the ultimate decision; it will not be politics or politicians," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said. "If it's harmful, we're simply not going to do it."
But even the beginning of the federal study, known as an environmental impact statement, is not without contention. Scientists and government officials have vastly different views about how much study is required to determine whether the Asian oyster can safely be turned loose in the bay.
"We have two scientific panels thus far that have said there are a lot of gaps in the knowledge here that are going to take a number of years to fill," said Mike Fritz of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. "Then we have proposals from Maryland and Virginia that are timed to take a much shorter period of time."
The length and depth of the study will have a huge influence on the results, according to scientists and others familiar with the Asian oyster issue.
"It's a really crucial question," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If you're going to do this right and have confidence in the recommendations, we believe there are a lot of very difficult questions that are going to require a lot of work."
A hasty study, based on existing research, could prompt a quick conclusion that the Asian oyster (formally known as Crassostrea ariakensis) poses little risk to either the native oyster or other marine life. But more in-depth research might reveal unknown risks, and state officials fear it will take so long that the bay's shellfish industry will be beyond saving.
Hearings are set to begin this week in Annapolis and Newport News, Va. The federal government will accept comments and recommendations for study topics through Feb. 20.
"We're going to look at 'How do we establish an oyster resource back into the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal waters of Maryland and Virginia?'" said Peter R. Kube, the Corps of Engineers scientist who is coordinating the study. "The answer could be anything from continuing native oyster restoration to a moratorium on oyster harvest to aquaculture to reproductive ariakensis in the bay."
In the end, though, Maryland and Virginia won't have to abide by the study's recommendations. In fact, there don't appear to be any federal regulations to prevent states from planting Asian oysters on reefs and seeing whether they can grow.
"We're patterning this whole thing after the federal process to make sure we cover all the bases, to get as good a sound basis on science as we can get," says William P. "Pete" Jensen, Maryland's deputy secretary of natural resources. "It will, in the end, be a state decision. We have the authority to do what we believe is right."
Scientists in Virginia and Maryland began testing the Asian oyster in the waters of the bay after the collapse of the native Crassostrea virginica.
Maryland officials expect a record-low oyster catch this season. After initially projecting a harvest of 25,000 bushels -- less than half last year's 53,000 bushels -- they have dropped their 2003-04 forecast to little more than 15,000 bushels. That's a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million bushels harvested as recently as the 1980s.
Similarly, in the Potomac River's tidal waters, no oysters were reported caught by hand in the first three months of the oyster season, and only 75 bushels have been caught since dredging was permitted just after Christmas. In the 1960s, the area produced 500,000 or more bushels of oysters a year.
'The most promise'
"We are completely out of business," said A.C. Carpenter of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. "Right now, the Asian oyster seems to hold the most promise, ... and if we wait three or five years to finish doing this study and then make a decision, the fishery will have collapsed. The infrastructure will be gone, and I don't think we'll be able to restore it."
The Asian oyster is a particularly attractive alternative because it is resistant to Dermo and MSX, the diseases afflicting the native oyster.
Officials and watermen in both states say they hope to establish reproducing populations of the Asian oyster, resurrecting the industry and providing the environmental benefit of creatures that filter pollutants from bay waters.
Scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are testing Asian oysters that have been genetically altered to prevent reproduction, raising them in secure cages in waters off Virginia, North Carolina and, eventually, Maryland.
Although no problems have been reported in Virginia, a parasite never before seen in the Mid-Atlantic killed Asian oysters in a sound off North Carolina. The institute's scientists are studying the one-celled organism to determine whether it might spread to the bay.
"When you look at a disease like MSX, 30 to 40 years after its introduction, it's managed to make its way a long way up the bay and is in half of Maryland now. It really needs to be thought about carefully because we wouldn't want to make any mistakes on something like bringing in or spreading a new disease," said institute researcher Mark W. Luckenbach, co-chairman of a scientific panel organized by the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program to develop questions for the federal study.
In the summer, a review panel of the National Academies of Sciences endorsed the sterile Asian oyster experiments but recommended far more research be done before allowing the introduction of the reproductive variety.
The committee recommended more research into the oyster's basic biology, as well studies to determine how it would interact with native oysters and other marine life. Scientists said that could take at least five years.
More recently, the EPA panel reached a similar conclusion. In a report expected to be released soon, scientists list about 15 research questions they say are a high priority.
The report also questions whether the states have the resources to conduct experiments as quickly as they would like. In particular, it notes, there aren't enough quarantine hatcheries, and for that matter, there aren't many mature Asian oysters available for testing.
But natural resources officials say there's no time to wait. Maryland has $1.5 million for Asian oyster research, and Virginia officials are expected to find money next year. The Potomac fisheries commission diverted the $100,000 it usually spends on native oyster repletion to the study of imported species.
"Under the traditional scientific research regime of getting proposals and raising money and doing the research and writing up the peer review, some of it might take two or three years," Jensen said. "In this case, the researchers don't need to go out and find the money because we have it. They can start right away, and they'll have preliminary research in a year. We think this can be finished by early 2005."
The Army Corps of Engineers will hold two public meetings to solicit comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement:
Monday, 7 p.m., Radisson Hotel Annapolis, 210 Holiday Court, Annapolis.
Wednesday, 6 p.m., Warwick High School, 51 Copeland Lane, Newport News, Va. Until Feb. 20, comments may also be sent to Peter R. Kube at the Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Branch, 803 Front St., Norfolk, Va., 23510, or via e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org for posting on the Internet.