- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland and Virginia’s debate over whether to drop nonnative oysters into the Chesapeake Bay sparked an animated and earnest verbal tussle among more than 100 watermen, scientists, environmentalists, aquaculturists and state resource managers at a forum last week.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the public invitation, asking anyone interested in the Bay oyster issue to add comments. The federal agency is coordinating a study by both states to determine if breeding Asian oysters should be used to augment the Bay’s devastated native oysters.

As the federal agency begins its accelerated study, the forum illustrated the sense of urgency among those on both sides of the issue.

“We need this oyster now. Today. It should already be in the state of Maryland,” James Gross, a leader of the Anne Arundel County Watermen’s Association, told a leader of one of the forum’s small groups.

“Should we say as soon as possible?’” a facilitator asked.

“Today. Yesterday,” Mr. Gross answered. “You’re talking to a man who’s out of work.”

Fifty years ago, Chesapeake watermen harvested a quarter of the oysters gathered nationwide. Maryland’s take fell off rapidly in the 1980s and dropped to an all-time low in the full season, making up less than 2 percent of the nation’s total.

This year, state environmental officials estimate only about 70 harvesters are working — compared with more than 400 last year. They blame the devastation on disease and overharvesting.

Scientists urged more caution, saying there isn’t enough research to show whether the fast-growing Crassostrea ariakensis oyster species is safe for the Bay. Maryland is commissioning more than $1 million in research to determine if the oysters could bring in new diseases or parasites.

“I think it’s a disaster in the making,” said Robert Wieland, a resource economist who lives in Trappe, on the Eastern Shore.

Michael Vandeven now lives on the Magothy River but watched zebra mussels, now a widespread, aggressive exotic species, take over the St. Lawrence River when he lived near Syracuse, N.Y.

“I worry that a nonnative species may go haywire,” Mr. Vandeven told the group.

Boat owners, he said, pull their vessels out of the river overnight so zebra mussel larvae don’t attach to rotor blades. The mussels are clogging intake pipes and fouling beaches.

Federal environmental officials say the Army Corps’ report isn’t a requirement for introducing Crassostrea, but Maryland leaders say they want to thoroughly investigate the risks of putting breeding nonnatives in Bay waters.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he will let science decide whether the introduction is safe. But he has made it clear he believes the Asian oysters are the Bay’s best hope.

The Army Corps says it will complete its study by the summer of 2005.

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