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Del. and N.J. oppose Md. oyster plan
Officials want more studies done on potential effects of non-native species

By MOLLY MURRAY / The News Journal

Fisheries officials in Delaware and New Jersey joined the opposition Tuesday to Maryland's planned introduction of Asian oysters into Chesapeake Bay, saying there still is too much uncertainty about potential harm to native oysters and other aquatic life.

The two states said they are particularly concerned that the Asian oysters - Crassostrea ariakensis - could bring new diseases to the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and whether the oysters would be effective as a pollution filter.

"There are too many unknowns surrounding this newest Asian oyster proposed for possible introduction," said Patrick Emory, the director of Delaware's Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Maryland hopes to bring in non-native oysters next year if researchers deem them safe for the bay. The state hopes, in part, to revive an oyster fishery ravaged by two diseases and overfishing. Those factors have contributed to a significant decline in harvests in the past 35 years.

The joint statement by Delaware and New Jersey comes weeks after Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking that an environmental impact study on the oyster project be completed by March. The statement reviewed points in a joint paper submitted last month to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the regional fishery management agency along the East Coast.

Emory and New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Director Martin McHugh said the two states want a regional consensus on the safety of introducing the Asian oysters, strong research to support any decision and a more active role for the fisheries commission.

"They want to rejuvenate the industry as rapidly as possible," said Roy Miller, Delaware's fisheries administrator. "We're just urging them to do whatever studies are necessary."

Delaware officials said they are concerned that a Chesapeake Bay introduction of Asian oysters could lead to pressure from local commercial fisherman for a similar project in Delaware Bay. Delaware is trying to preserve its industry by propping up the native oyster population.

"Some of the recent research studies appear inconclusive and highlight the need for a more regional approach," Emory said.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks described the joint statement as "alarmist."

Franks said Maryland already has used traditional fishery management tools to try to restore a healthy native oyster population in the bay with limited success.

"While we have great respect for our sister states and their perspective on this and all Chesapeake Bay issues, they have not been intimately involved in this process and therefore it is premature and alarmist for them to issue a call for us to stop all research for what exists today as a potential idea," Franks said. "Maryland will not, under any circumstances, introduce anything that will have a detrimental effect" on the bay.

Maryland officials are wrapping up a year's worth of research on the Asian oysters, which are native to China, and say they should know by February or March whether the species could bring pathogens or diseases into the bay or crowd out what is left of native oysters.

Franks said Maryland officials hope to improve oyster stocks to help restore the fishery and to improve water quality.

Oysters are filter feeders and in large numbers can help improve water quality by removing nitrogen.

Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said there still were traditional steps Maryland could take to try to help the native oyster population rebound, such as setting harvest limits.

Among the options are emerging research programs that use natural selection to find disease-resistant native oysters, Goldsborough said.

He said there are concerns about introducing a new species into the bay without detailed study because the results are often irreversible.

Among them are whether the species, while resistant to two major oyster diseases in the region, might serve as a carrier that could infect the native population. The new species also may prove to be less resistant to some other, less common oyster diseases.

Contact Molly Murray at 856-7372 or [email protected].
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