Monday, January 15, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Chesapeake Bay oysters should get more help because they are the best hope for cleaning the Bay, legislative leaders said yesterday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the restoration of native oysters, not transplanting imported Asian oysters, would be the top environmental priority this year. He did not say how much money should be spent.

“We want to see progress with getting the native oyster replenished,” he said at an annual environmental summit in Annapolis.

Outgoing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, urged speedy research into whether Asian oysters should be dropped into the Chesapeake. The thinking was the Asian oysters are resistant to a disease that nearly wiped out native oysters, but environmental groups urged caution. Mr. Busch and other officials said the arrival of incoming Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, will bring a more deliberative approach on Asian oysters.

Delegate Virginia P. Clagett, Anne Arundel Democrat, said officials should slow studies on the Asian oyster until they are sure the species will not harm the Bay’s ecology.

“If we let them in, it’s not like recalling a car or a toaster,” she said. “They’re there for good.”

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said research on the Asian oysters should continue, but lawmakers should first help native oysters.

“Clearly the momentum is behind the native oyster,” he said.

Oysters are seen as a barometer of the Bay’s health and a means to restore the waterway.

In centuries past, oysters were able to filter all of the water in the Bay in three or four days. Now, because of over-harvesting, pollution and disease, oyster stocks have dwindled so much that it takes a year for oysters to filter the Bay’s water, Mr. Busch said.

Environmentalists said yesterday they were enthused about Democratic gains in the already Democrat-controlled legislature and the victory of Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, who takes office tomorrow.

Lawmakers also pledged to join other states in requiring cleaner emissions from new cars and said they would consider ways to encourage wind-power production. In addition, they said Mr. O’Malley has pledged to leave intact money designated to buy open space.

Mr. O’Malley’s choice to lead the state Department of the Environment, Shari Wilson, said environmental concerns would get more attention over the next four years.

“It seems like things are lining up for the environment,” said Mrs. Wilson, a lawyer who represents Baltimore in environmental cases.

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