- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reviewing a petition to recognize the Chesapeake Bay’s native oysters as “threatened” or “endangered,” a designation that likely would halt or limit harvesting of the shellfish.

Fisheries experts are emphasizing that either designation, which would take a year, may be a long shot.

The petition was filed last week by Dieter Busch, a consultant who formerly led an arm of the 15-state Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory authority.

Mr. Busch acknowledged it is not likely that the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica, would meet the criteria to become an endangered species — a designation that deems an animal is on the verge of becoming extinct. Such a label would halt all harvesting of the oysters.

But he thinks Bay oyster populations might be decimated enough to meet the criteria of a threatened species, a classification that would allow harvest as long as it wouldn’t jeopardize the oysters’ recovery.

Maryland’s fishery managers and experts have been struggling for years to reverse the decline of the native oysters, which have been devastated by overharvesting and disease. Progress has been made in localized areas of certain rivers and inlets, and on reserve reefs, where harvest has been limited.

But harvests of the oysters, one of the strongest indicators of how populous they are, have crashed. In the late 1800s, Maryland watermen pulled more than 2 million bushels of healthy oysters annually. The catch is now at an all-time low. The harvest last year was 26,000 bushels, and Maryland officials have deemed the fishery “virtually nonexistent.”

“Instead of spinning their wheels and talking, this really crystallizes the process,” said Mr. Busch, also the former chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field programs in the lower Great Lakes.

NOAA officials said neither designation would block the introduction of Crassostrea ariakensis, the oyster native to China that Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to distribute in the Bay. Millions of dollars worth of state and federal research is under way to ensure an introduction wouldn’t bring in diseases or crowd out what is left of the native oysters.

Still, Mr. Busch addresses the would-be introduction of “an exotic competitor” in his petition and emphasizes the immediacy of the native oyster’s situation. Asian oysters “may also hybridize with the remnants of the [native] oyster population, pushing this species over the edge,” he wrote in the petition.

NOAA will take up to 90 days to review the six-page petition and 28 pages of supplemental exhibits, said Phil Williams, chief of the endangered-species division at NOAA fisheries. At the end of the period, the agency may appoint a panel of private, federal and state fisheries experts that would take up to nine months to review the request further.

The process allows for public hearings and public input, Mr. Williams said.

He said the agency is aware of how much weight the issue holds for Marylanders and Virginians. Almost as much as blue crabs, oysters symbolize the once-hearty bounty and health of the Bay. At the same time, struggling watermen still depend on the bivalves for their livelihood.

“It certainly makes it more complicated. It makes it more difficult,” Mr. Williams said. “But that’s why we try to set up the process very clearly, so the people on the review team aren’t just taking shots and getting lobbied all the time. They need to be able to do their jobs independently.”

The review panel would make a recommendation to the NOAA’s regional administrator in Gloucester, Mass. The agency’s assistant administrator for fisheries, William Hogarth, has the final say on whether Chesapeake oysters would be listed as threatened or endangered.

The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which works throughout the year to bolster native oyster reefs, is not taking a position on whether oysters should be protected, said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the foundation.

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