OPINION: Asian Oysters - It's Not Wise to Fool Around with Mother Nature

By State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

I have a healthy respect for the complexities of the ecological food chain. I am very cautious about interjecting any man-made change into the environment. It's not wise to fool around with Mother Nature. I believe that. Now, having said all that we need to talk about oysters and some very important meetings coming up in the very near future.

Maryland's oyster crop has been devastated by overharvesting and two deadly diseases, MSX and Dermo, which killed the shellfish before they were big enough to harvest. In 1980 2,220 Maryland watermen pulled 2.1 million bushels of healthy oysters. By 2004, the number of watermen harvesting oysters was down to 330 and only 26,000 bushels were harvested. Oyster recovery programs have planted millions of oysters around the Bay over the last several years. But the diminishing number of oysters remains a problem.

In 2004, a plan to seed the Bay with non-native Asian oysters was championed by the Ehrlich Administration. The Asian oyster was larger, hardier and more resistant to disease than the Bay's native oyster. However, scientists cautioned that a rush to introduce Asian oysters in the Bay was both dangerous and irresponsible without comprehensive study. The risks of introducing the Asian oyster must be studied and identified. The potential for ecological disaster is real. Scientists warned that the effects of Asian oysters on human health have not been studied adequately. For example, certain bacteria found more in Asian oysters than in the Bay's native oysters can cause a form of food poisoning.

On the one hand, the Asian oyster might thrive in the Bay. It might thrive and multiply so rapidly that it could crowd out the native oyster. Proponents of the Asian oyster proposal contend the non-native oyster will save the Bay's oyster industry. Opponents claim it's not worth the risk. I was and still am an opponent.

It should be emphasized that introduction of other species, such as zebra mussels and sea lamprey ended badly. Often the introduction of non-native species overrun native plants and animals and does more harm than good. The mute swans gobbled up underwater grasses in the Bay and the rodent-like nutria has just about wiped out Eastern Shore marshlands.

The 2005 Maryland General Assembly approved legislation to require the State Department of Natural Resources to perform more environmental impact studies, obtain a recommendation from an independent advisory panel submitting a report to the Legislature and hold public hearings.

In 2004, Maryland and Virginia State and environmental leaders requested a U. S. government study of the risks and rewards involved in introducing the Asian oyster to the Chesapeake Bay. It was hoped that the study would support introduction of the sturdier non-native Asian oyster.

Those hopes were dashed a few weeks ago when the officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of the Environment and Virginia Marine Resources Commission, , released a 1,500 page draft report that offered no conclusion. After four years and $15 million spent, we have a lot of oyster data, but no recommendation of what we should do, if anything, about putting Asian oysters in the Bay. Officials said they were awaiting public input to help them determine the right course.

Six public meetings will be held to get public input. The Maryland meetings will be held on November 12 in Solomons, November 13 in Annapolis and November 14 in Cambridge. A decision is expected in spring of 2009.

William Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, noted that while Asian oysters may be resistant to the diseases ravaging native oysters, they can fall victim to a different non-native microbe, Bonamia. The Asian oysters have thin shells, making them more susceptible to predators.

The draft report has been characterized as "a dose of reality" to those who believed the Asian oyster would be the solution to replenishing the Bay's dwindling oyster population. Don Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, echoed my view when he said, "When you weigh the modest potential gains and uncertain risks, I don't see there is a groundswell to say we should move ahead with the introduction (of the Asian oyster)."

Basically, the study report leaves the Asian oyster issue up to the states. I take that as a good sign that the states will ultimately make this decision.

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