The sensible solution to the Asian oyster question


THE MARYLAND General Assembly recently passed legislation requiring the state Department of Natural Resources to take additional steps before allowing the introduction of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay.

Those steps include performing more environmental impact studies, getting a recommendation from an independent advisory panel, submitting a report to the General Assembly and holding public hearings.

As laudable as is this ambitious attempt to reach a conclusive position, there's a problem. For an issue this complex, there's plenty of information out there to support both sides of the debate. Proponents claim that the Asian oysters can be sterilized and will not be able to reproduce in the bay if there is a problem with them. Opponents point to the introductions of other species (zebra mussels, sea lamprey) that have ended badly and argue that Asian oyster sterilization likely will not be complete.

But don't expect to see a deleterious effect shortly after the introductions, if there are to be any, because it took more than a century after building the Erie and Welland canals for sea lamprey to devastate upper Great Lakes fisheries.

Proponents claim Asian oysters are better than native oysters at resisting disease. Opponents argue that native oysters can be effectively reintroduced under the proper conditions. Proponents say the Asian oyster will save the bay's oyster industry. Opponents say it's not worth the risk.

There are good arguments on both sides, but the fundamental issue is that there is large, remaining, unresolvable uncertainty about the outcome of introducing Asian oysters into the bay. Yet a decision must be made.

The usual approach to this problem is to make a decision despite the uncertainty. This results in an arbitrary or politically driven decision, and it essentially ignores or denies the uncertainty rather than confronts it.

An alternative approach is one that acknowledges the uncertainty and its financial implications and allows a more informed and rational decision: Require those who want to introduce Asian oysters - for example, private individuals or companies - to post an assurance bond that would be substantial enough to cover the worst-case damages from the introduction. The bond, or a portion of it, would be refunded if and when it could be demonstrated that the potential environmental damages from the introduction did not occur.

The burden of proof concerning environmental impacts would be shifted from the public to parties standing to gain from the introductions. If impacts occur, the bond would be used to mitigate damages and compensate affected parties.

If those who plan to introduce the oysters are confident about their arguments that environmental impacts would be minimal, they should be willing to post the bond, particularly since it would be refunded.

Opponents should agree to this because it would force those making the introductions to live up to their promises that environmental impacts would be minimal. The bond would force the introducers to consider these risks up front, before the damage has occurred, and would make it imperative for them to devise safer and more environmentally protective procedures.

This kind of financial assurance is common in managing other high-risk ventures. For example, building contractors for large projects (especially public projects) are often required to post bonds to ensure that the project will be completed as agreed. Bonds have also been used to ensure proper reclamation of mining operations.

Introduction of the Asian oyster into the bay should be permitted only if the parties that stand to gain from the introduction are required to bear the full costs of that activity. Passing these costs onto the public would be inefficient, unfair and unwise.

Robert Costanza is professor and the director of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. Robert Huggett is a marine science professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary.

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