If Maryland's oyster population has any chance of rebounding, state officials will need to invest a lot more time, effort and money into restoration, Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources now spends several million dollars a year to restore oyster habitat and help plant oysters in the bay. Despite those efforts, department officials say, there are fewer oysters in the bay now than there were in 1994 -- in large part because diseases have overtaken large areas of the bay where the bivalves once thrived.
But O'Malley, who spoke after a two-hour cruise in the Chesapeake Bay, said those funds are just a small amount of what's needed to bring back oysters, which filter the water and create important habitats for fish and small animals.
"The huge expense up front is not the time at which you measure the success of your journey," O'Malley said. "That is the time you begin the journey."
O'Malley said he's looking forward to the release of a four-year study -- due this summer -- that will look at different techniques for restoring the oyster.
The study, which began under the Ehrlich administration, is also looking at the feasibility of introducing an Asian oyster.
Scientists from other Mid-Atlantic states worried that Ehrlich's Department of Natural Resources was moving too quickly to introduce the Asian species, which they said could have devastating consequences for the ecosystem. Ehrlich officials once hoped to have the Asian species in the bay as early as 2005.
O'Malley, who has in the past said he would take a wait-and-see approach on the Asian oyster, was more direct yesterday about whether his administration would consider introducing a non-native species.
"It's a scary prospect," the governor said. "I'm not so sure we should be so enamored of a quick-fix species when we don't know the harm it will do."
O'Malley spent much of yesterday standing on the deck of the Kerhin, a DNR research vessel, as scientists showed him the equipment they used to monitor the bay's water quality. He looked at a computer-generated image of the bay's bottom, then examined mud-encrusted oysters that a dredge pulled up from Sandy Point South Oyster Bar near the Bay Bridge. He looked at charts that showed the species in the bay, and at graphs detailing the levels of chlorophyll, turbidity and other factors that affect water quality.
It was a level of detail that many agency officials said they do not recall previous governors getting into.
"I've been with DNR for 25 years, and this is the first time the governor's office has taken this level of interest in what we do out here," said Capt. Rick Younger, who was at the helm of the Kerhin yesterday.
Joining O'Malley on the trip were Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch and Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. Several state officials, as well as members of the news media, followed in a second boat. Yesterday's tour capped off a week of environmental activities. Last weekend, the governor planted trees in honor of Earth Day. On Tuesday, he signed into law several environmental measures, including a "clean cars" bill to curb emissions and legislation to create an oyster restoration task email@example.com