Top wildlife officials in Delaware and New Jersey announced Tuesday they strongly oppose a plan the Ehrlich administration is considering to introduce Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay.
In an unusual joint policy statement, officials from the neighboring states said they agree with scientists who recommend at least five more years of research before a decision is made.
"There are too many unknowns surrounding this newest Asian oyster proposed for possible introduction," said Patrick Emory, director of Delaware's Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Ehrlich administration officials have pressed for quicker action, saying the state needs to find a way to replace a native oyster population that has been all but wiped out by disease. The oyster population is critical to filtering pollution from the bay, they say, and struggling watermen need a crop to harvest.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks stressed Tuesday that no decision has been made. Two study groups are researching the issue and will advise his department early next year on whether they believe it would be safe to introduce the nonnative species, Franks said.
He called the statement by Delaware and New Jersey officials "premature and alarmist."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who this fall asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get its scientists to stop calling for more research on the issue - sounded more reserved Tuesday.
"Maybe ultimately the science dictates it cannot be done," Ehrlich said. "If that's the case, that will be the decision."
The National Academy of Sciences and others have called for at least five years of research before a decision is made on whether to introduce a reproductive Asian oyster into the bay.
Scientists say much is still unknown about the Asian oyster, also known as Crassostrea ariakensis. Concerns include that it could edge out the native oyster in competing for food or bring in new diseases.
Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the organization believes caution is necessary.
"We believe that we don't know enough about the implications of introducing the Asian oyster into the Chesapeake Bay to go ahead with it at this time," he said.
Goldsborough said it can take years for the full impact of introducing a foreign species into the ecosystem to become clear.
Some nonnative species such as the snakehead fish from China, a voracious predator, can threaten native species, he said. Others, like the nutria from South America, a large rodent, have destroyed wetlands and become a nuisance in some communities.
Goldsborough said the joint policy statement by officials in Delaware and New Jersey should get the Ehrlich administration's attention on the Asian oyster matter.
"I think it indicates the gravity of the issue," he said. "I hope it reinforces their stated intent, which is to let science be their guide. The science is all saying 'proceed very carefully.'"