The formal study that will likely determine whether a foreign oyster will be introduced into the Chesapeake is being launched in January, with public hearings scheduled in both Maryland and Virginia.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk district, after lengthy meetings with officials from state and federal agencies, scientists and others, in December drafted the formal notice of its intent to develop a federal Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed introduction of Crassostrea ariakensis into the Bay, and possible alternatives. The notice is expected to be published in the Federal Register in early January.

The proposal from Maryland and Virginia calls for placing reproductive C. ariakensis oysters into the tidal waters of the Bay beginning next year “or as soon as a rigorous, scientifically based EIS can be undertaken.”

The proposal calls for using the offspring of C. ariakensis oysters that have been maintained in hatcheries for at least three generations to minimize the risk that any unwanted parasites or other organisms would be introduced along with the oysters.

The oysters used would be descendants of those brought from Oregon hatcheries years ago—the same strain that has been used in past experiments which showed they grew fast and withstand diseases that have plagued the native C. virginica. The goal, according to the proposal, is to establish a self-sustaining oyster population that could support harvests comparable to those that existed from 1920 to 1970 and would provide ecological services to the Bay, including water filtering and reef habitat for other species.

Under the time line set in the notice, a draft EIS would be completed in spring 2005 and submitted for public review. After that, a final “record of decision” would be issued. But the notice is vague about who would make a final decision about any introduction. Maryland and Virginia officials have said it is a state decision, but federal officials have said an introduction could require a federal permit. The draft notice simply states that “deployment of non-native oysters may be subject” to a variety of federal regulations.

Both state and federal officials have acknowledged that it’s questionable whether the 2005 time frame can be met. The notice said that a scientific advisory panel will offer advice on research needed for an EIS and comment on whether there is sufficient scientific research in the document.

Many scientists are skeptical about the yearlong time frame put forth; a December meeting of leading oyster researchers concluded that five years of work will likely be needed as little is known about C. ariakensis. That is in line with estimates from scientists who worked on a National Academy of Sciences report said last year.

As part of a public “scoping” process that will determine the full range of the study, people will be able to comment on the proposal put forward by the states, as well as alternatives put forth in the notice. Those alternatives include:

  • Taking no further action beyond existing native oyster restoration programs.
  • Expanding the native oyster restoration program, including a large-scale deployment of disease resistant strains of C. virginica.
  • Implementing a harvest moratorium on native oysters, including a buyout program for displaced watermen.
  • Establishing aquaculture using the native oyster species.
  • Establishing aquaculture with sterile C. ariakensis oysters.
  • Introducing an alternative oysters species (other than C. ariakensis) or a different strain of C. ariakensis than has been proposed.
  • A combination of the alternatives.

Public meetings are scheduled for:

  • Annapolis: 7 p.m. Jan. 26, Radisson Hotel Annapolis, 210 Holiday Court, Annapolis, MD.
  • Newport News: 6 p.m. Jan. 28, Warwick High School, 51 Copeland Lane, Newport News, VA.