A decision about the possible introduction of a foreign oyster into the Bay has been put off until at least June, the third time the release of a draft Environmental Impact Statement has been delayed.

Maryland, Virginia and federal officials agreed to modify the schedule because there was too little information about the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis for a decision at this point.

“The magnitude of this project, the volume of research data to be analyzed, and the number of partners involved, dictates that we modify the schedule so that sound science can determine the outcome of this study,” said Ron Franks, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The states originally proposed an introduction in the summer of 2003, signaling a desire to complete an environmental review examining the risks and benefits of such an introduction, and various alternatives, within a year.

But key data, including research about how the foreign oysters might fare in the Bay—information that is needed to develop predictive models—is not yet available.

And in a joint press release from the states and the Army Corps of Engineers, June was called a “checkpoint” when state and federal agencies would review available information to see whether the environmental impact statement could be completed.

The EIS schedule modification was decided upon at a meeting in late November by the lead agencies of Maryland, Virginia and the Corps in collaboration with the cooperating federal agencies for the study—the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Many watermen and seafood industry representatives have pressed for a more rapid timetable. Oyster harvests have been at, or near, record lows in recent years. Seafood processors, who have supplemented their inventories by importing oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, have been especially hard hit this year because of widespread harvest closures in the gulf caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“I hope they are serious about the completion date,” said Frances Porter, director of the Virginia Seafood Council. “I’d like everybody to keep the pressure on the federal government to complete the EIS in June. They have got to get this done so we can move forward.”

Many scientists and federal agencies have urged waiting for more studies to be completed. While C. ariakensis has performed well in aquaculture, laboratory studies have raised questions about how it might perform in the wild.

The first scientific study placing sterile oysters in bottom conditions only began in October, and is not expected to wrap up until the end of 2007. Other studies, including a multiyear research project funded by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, are also expected to continue through most of 2007.

Jamie King, an oyster biologist with NOAA’s Bay office, said the research time frame has remained the same since it was first developed in 2004 to address key issues raised by the National Research Council and the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.

“If information leading up to a June decision point shows that we really do have all of the major questions answered and the major research priorities addressed, we are very willing to be pleasantly surprised,” King said.

“But we don’t expect to be surprised because we’ve got a lot of information that tells us that the timeline we are proceeding on is the correct one.”