The long-anticipated environmental impact statement regarding the potential introduction of a nonnative oyster into the Chesapeake Bay has been delayed again, with officials now expecting a draft report to be released in October.
The document-which officials say will weigh in at about 1,500 pages-has been undergoing a scientific peer review and is now slated for release Oct. 17, officials say.
Some of the latest delay was caused by the need to give reviewers adequate time to go over the comprehensive document and resolve issues they raised. But after a meeting of the scientific peer review panel in mid- August, officials said most issues have now been resolved.
"There are still some minor, but important, ones that need to be worked on in the coming weeks," said Tom O'Connell, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. "It would require a pretty significant issue that was unresolved to keep it from going out in October."
O'Connell said the biggest remaining issue raised by the scientific review panel was the need to rewrite portions of the document to make it easier for people to follow. "Things are looking good," he said. "The primary focus right now is trying to improve the readability of the document."
Interest in the nonnative oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, was spurred by work at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which found it was able to resist diseases that have devastated populations of the Bay's native oyster, C. virginica. A series of large-scale experiments conducted by the Virginia Seafood Council using sterile C. ariakensis has shown they have high survival rates and rapid growth in the Bay's tidal waters.
As a result, many watermen and seafood industry representatives have pressed for a rapid decision to allow for more widespread use of the oyster.
But environmental groups, many scientists and several states outside the Bay have expressed reservations about any introduction, saying the consequences are unpredictable and an introduction would be irreversible. Reports by the Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and the National Research Council expressed numerous concerns about an introduction.
The states of Maryland and Virginia in 2003 initially proposed introducing a breeding population of C. ariakensis into tidal waters of the Bay to revive the estuary's oyster population.
That launched an environmental review process, headed by the states in partnership with the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers, to determine the risks and benefits of such an action, as well as eight potential alternatives.
Initially, state officials hoped to complete the review in two years, but so little was known about the oyster, which is native to China, that the process was repeatedly delayed as scientists conducted dozens of research projects to learn more about the oyster, and how it might behave in the Chesapeake.
Most of those projects are now complete. O'Connell said the peer review panel said the handful of projects that are outstanding were not essential to finalizing the draft environmental impact statement.
The Executive Committee overseeing the development of the environmental review has been pressed to issue a draft of the environmental impact statement, which was originally anticipated in 2005.
"The Executive Committee at their last meeting expressed in the strongest possible terms a desire that this document be published in October,' said Jack Travelstead, fisheries director for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The committee is composed of Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin; Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant, Jr.; and United States Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Commander, Colonel Dionysios Anninos.
The timetable is especially sensitive in Virginia as legislation and budget language approved by the General Assembly has pressed the issue. Legislation gave the VMRC Commissioner authority to approve projects involving sterile or reproductive C. ariakensis oysters effective July 1, 2007. Language attached to the state budget three years ago called on the VMRC to proceed with an introduction of reproductive nonnative oysters "as soon as practicable."
Travelstead said the VMRC has taken the position that it should await the completion of the environmental review to make any decisions.
Although the environmental impact statement is examining several alternatives, the October draft will not contain a preferred alternative. Instead, it will describe each option, and its risks and benefits. But it will likely narrow the number of alternatives under serious consideration.
Once released, the states and the Corps plan a 60-day public review period, during which six public meetings will be conducted, three each in Maryland and Virginia.
After the comment period, agencies will review and respond to comments, after which the draft document will be revised, if necessary. A final environmental impact statement with a preferred alternative, or combination of alternatives, will then be released-likely next spring.
After a 30-day waiting period, during which the public can comment on the recommended action, a final "record of decision" can be issued.
Because the review is overseen by three entities-the Corps, and the states of Virginia and Maryland-it is possible that each could write a separate decision.
"The intent is to form one record of decision that is joint between the three lead agencies, but if that cannot be achieved there could be as many as three separate records of decision," O'Connell said. "But the agency heads are committed to working together in striving to reach a joint record of decision."
If a recommendation is made that could allow nonnative oysters, O'Connell said the environmental impact statement would likely not be the last word on the issue.
The study being finalized is a "programmatic" environmental impact statement, which broadly examines an issue that covers a large geographic areas or includes complex programs. If its final recommendation allowed the use or introduction of nonnative oysters, any specific proposal would likely require further reviews of any potential impacts it might have, including impacts on a specific site, before the project could be approved.
Proposed Oyster Actions
The Environmental Impact Statement is reviewing a proposed action and eight alternative actions regarding nonnative and native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. They include:
Proposed Action: The state of Maryland and commonwealth of Virginia propose to introduce the oyster species Crassostrea ariakensis into the tidal waters of Maryland and Virginia for the purpose of establishing a naturalized, reproducing and self-sustaining population of this oyster species. The states would continue efforts to restore native oysters as well.
- Alternative 1: No Action; continue current programs with native oysters.
- Alternative 2: Expand and accelerate native oyster restoration programs.
- Alternative 3: Implement a temporary harvest moratorium on native oysters, which would include an oyster industry compensation (buyout) program that would offer displaced oystermen on-water work in a restoration program.
- Alternative 4: Establish and/or expand state-assisted, managed or regulated aquaculture operations in Maryland and Virginia using the native oyster species.
- Alternative 5: Establish state-assisted, managed or regulated aquaculture operations in Maryland and Virginia using sterilized, non-native oyster species.
- Alternative 6: Introduce and propagate an alternative oyster species (other than C. ariakensis) or an alternative strain of C. ariakensis.
- Alternative 7: Establish a reproducing and self-sustaining population of C. ariakensis in Maryland and Virginia but discontinue efforts to restore C. virginica.
- Alternative 8: Combine alternatives.