The Ehrlich administration, which once planned to put Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay as early as February 2005, is delaying any decision on the matter for yet another year.
The announcement yesterday marks the fourth delay for the project in less than two years. During that time, scientists, legislators and natural resources managers in neighboring states have criticized Maryland's push for Asian oysters as a reckless endeavor that could jeopardize the health of the ecosystem.
Mike Slattery, assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says the agency had hoped that by now it would have the information it needed to determine whether the state should introduce a new species.
Though critics have contended the department has already made up its mind, Slattery said officials remain undecided. The delay until May of next year, he said, is because the other agencies working on the research haven't completed their work as quickly as DNR officials expected.
"What we're learning is that, in our zeal to answer the questions as quickly as possible and help the bay as quickly as possible, we were overly optimistic in what we could get done in a time period," he said.
In the past few years, Maryland has spent about $3 million studying whether the Asian oyster, which is native to China, will thrive in a bay that has all but lost its native oysters to disease and overharvesting. State officials have said they want to restore oysters to the bay to provide watermen with a crop to harvest as well as to filter the water.
Pushing the project along was W. Pete Jensen, a career DNR employee whom Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hired in 2003 as the department's deputy director. Jensen had been fired in 2001 under Parris N. Glendening's administration because Jensen was too close to watermen.
But last year, Jensen left the agency. And scientists continued to tell DNR officials that the biology of an oyster's life cycle can't be rushed and that Jensen's deadlines couldn't be met.
"They set an ambitious time frame to light a fire under everyone's tail. When they saw it wasn't going to happen, they revised their time frame," said Roger Newell, an oyster biologist at the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Newell expects that by next May he will have answers to several of the questions he is examining, including whether Asian oysters form reefs and how vulnerable they are to predators.
It's unclear whether the May date will yield a report or yet another postponement. Several Asian oyster projects funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won't be completed until late next year or 2008. Oyster research depends on factors beyond the agency's control, such as temperature fluctuations and the reproductive cycle. The researchers plan to meet in December to discuss their findings to date.
Slattery hopes that, at that time, the agency will be closer to a decision.
"At some point, the public is going to be hungry to evaluate this work and see if enough work has been done to responsibly answer these questions," he said.