Ehrlich administration officials said yesterday they would extend by at least 90 days their timetable for deciding whether to introduce Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, a decision applauded by some critics who thought the state was moving too aggressively to introduce a non-native species.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources had expected to complete its environmental impact study on the Asian oyster by February or March and make a decision in the spring. Yesterday, officials said they would complete the study by June or July and make a decision after that point.
Agency officials said that collecting the information took longer than anticipated and that scientists now needed to run their findings through risk-assessment models.
"This is purely a timing issue based on the availability of the data, and the need to put the data in and run the models," said DNR Assistant Secretary Michael E. Slattery.
After Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election two years ago, state officials moved quickly to study the possibility of putting Asian oysters in the bay, both to help filter out pollution and to give watermen a crop to harvest. Native oyster harvests have dropped from millions of bushels in the 1970s to about 20,000 bushels in recent years.
But Maryland and Virginia scientists contend the administration is moving too quickly. Many point to a National Academy of Sciences study that recommended five to seven years of research before considering an introduction of Asian oysters. Among the concerns about the foreign oysters are that they would out-compete with the native species for food and that they would introduce new diseases.
A delay of a few months does not erase those concerns, some scientists said yesterday, but they praised the state's announcement as an acknowledgement that the pace was too fast.
"It was overly optimistic to think it would be concluded by February," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "One can't get done even the research that is under way right now and interpret it within the timeframe."
State Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, who plans to introduce a bill requiring legislative approval before Asian oysters could be put in the bay, called DNR's announcement "a good push back." Franchot will hold a hearing next week on the Asian oyster matter, and he said he would ask DNR officials to "justify their unilateral journey."
"I can't find anyone at the federal or state level in our neighboring states that wants Maryland to go ahead," Franchot said.
New Jersey and Delaware are the most recent states to object to Maryland's plans; the entire East Coast could be affected if a foreign species is introduced into the bay. The Virginia secretary of natural resources also has expressed concerns about Maryland's timetable.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Bill Goldsborough remained skeptical of the administration's plans yesterday, saying he doubted the few months' delay would make much difference. He said the state was still going to make its determination on only one year of research, which he said was insufficient.