Environmental groups and sport fishermen are supporting legislation that would force the Ehrlich administration to wait for several more years of study before deciding whether to put Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay.
"This is far too significant a question for the future of the Chesapeake Bay to shortcut the research before we have answers we need to have," said Kim Coble, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who testified yesterday before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in Annapolis.
National Academy of Sciences researchers called for at least five years of study before decisions are made on whether to introduce the foreign species into the bay, pointing to the potential for irreversible environmental harm. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top natural resources officials have said the state needs to move more quickly to restore an oyster population all but wiped out by disease.
Yesterday, the state Department of Natural Resources and the commercial seafood industry testified against legislation that would require more study, saying the bill would cause unnecessary delays.
"Neither the governor nor I ... will introduce any child-eating oysters into the bay," said Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks. "This is not reckless."
Department officials say it is imperative the state take action to revive the bay's oyster population, both to filter out pollution and to give watermen a crop to harvest. They point out that the annual native oyster harvest has plummeted from 2.6 million bushels in 1975 to less than 30,000 bushels last year.
William P. "Pete" Jensen, associate deputy secretary of natural resources, said the state plans to finish by June or July an environmental impact study it began last year on the possible introduction of a variety of Asian oysters that have been transplanted into Oregon waters.
After reviewing that report, Jensen said the department will decide whether Asian oysters should be introduced into the Chesapeake, whether more study is needed or whether the state should try to focus on attempting to revive its plummeting native oysters.
Sens. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County and Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore, both Democrats, said they proposed the emergency bill because they worry the administration might make a premature decision to introduce the oysters before scientists know if they will bring new diseases or out-compete with local oysters for food.
Natural resources officials in Delaware and New Jersey also have said they object to Maryland's proposed timetable and are worried the species could bring unintended consequences.
Testifying in favor of the bill were representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Maryland Salt Water Sportsmen's Association. Opposing it as written were the DNR, Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association and the W.H. Harris Seafood company of Grasonville.
Franks said legislators are wrong if they think the administration has already made up its mind to introduce Asian oysters. But he said Maryland needs more filter feeders, such as oysters, to help clean up the bay.