The Maryland Department of Natural Resources said yesterday that it will take another six months to study the environmental impact of possibly introducing Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay.
"It is important for the public to understand we are taking the time to ensure ... that all available data has been considered before a decision is made on how and if to proceed," said Mike Slattery, an assistant secretary.
The amount of time required to study the implications of putting non-native oysters into the bay has been a subject of heated debate. Some top scientists have said at least five years of research are required, but the Ehrlich administration asserted in February that its study could be finished by summer.
The administration has argued that the state needs to act quickly to restore the bay's oyster population, which has been all but wiped out by disease and overharvesting.
Native oyster harvests have dropped from millions of bushels in the 1970s to about 20,000 bushels in recent years. Returning oysters to the bay would help filter out pollution and to give watermen a crop to harvest, officials say.
But many scientists have criticized the administration for moving too quickly, cautioning that a foreign species could lead to the demise of the remaining native population or cause other environmental harm.
Maryland natural resources officials said yesterday that their managers had consulted with their counterparts in Virginia and concluded that another six months of study would help answer outstanding questions, such as what population growth could be expected of native and non-native oysters.
The additional time will also allow the study to include information from recently funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research that is not due to be completed until the fall.
Officials said that in the meantime, they will release portions of their study, or "chapters," as they are completed.