Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has sought to bypass concerns of scientists and federal officials about his plan to introduce foreign oysters into the Chesapeake by asking the head of the EPA “to help move forward on this matter.”

In an Oct. 14 letter to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, the governor said that Maryland’s drive to make a decision on the issue by March “is meeting some resistance” from the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, as well as the state-federal Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.

Maryland officials have been pushing hard to complete work by March on an environmental impact study which could lead to an introduction of the nonnative oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, into the Bay. The EIS was initiated in response to a proposal by Maryland and Virginia to introduce breeding populations of the oysters.

But STAC, in a report issued earlier this year, outlined five years of “critical” research which it said should be completed before a credible decision about introducing the foreign oyster could be made. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that suggested six to seven years of research might be required.

This fall, officials from the Bay offices of the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outlined—at the request of congressional staff—an accelerated research program that would extend through the end of 2007.

“I do not believe that such delays are necessary and seek your assistance in seeing that the process moves forward in a timely manner,” Ehrlich wrote in a letter to Leavitt dated Oct. 14, the day before NOAA announced $2 million for more research on C. ariakensis.

The EPA administrator had yet to respond to the letter, which was first reported by the Baltimore Sun, by late November.

The debate over C. ariakensis has become one of the most contentious Bay issues. Field tests with sterile oysters have shown that they grow fast and appear to resist the diseases that plague the native oyster population. The oyster has also been well-received in taste tests.

Those factors have fueled intense interest by watermen and the seafood industry, especially as the Bay’s population of native oysters is near an all-time low because of decades of overharvesting and disease.

But scientists have cautioned that a decision to introduce breeding oysters into the Bay could be irreversible, and too little is known about the Chinese species to assess whether they would benefit or harm the Bay and the hundreds of other species living in it.

C. ariakensis is not known to be harvested commercially anywhere in the world. The oyster is so poorly studied that scientists have not even been able to determine whether it builds reefs, which are important habitats for other species, like the native oyster.

Recent research indicates that oysters in China which previously were considered to be C. ariakensis actually consist of several different species. That means most previously published research on the oyster—from which Maryland officials had hoped to gain information—is useless because it’s unclear in the papers what oyster was being studied.

Other recent studies have found the foreign oyster may be susceptible to greater predation than the native species. Also, a previously unknown strain of the pathogen Bonamia was discovered during experiments in North Carolina last year. The pathogen is lethal to C. ariakensis and may pose a threat if it turns up in the Bay.

Scientists say it will take several years to do experiments to answer pressing disease and ecological questions. Further, they say, more studies are needed to determine whether an introduction would likely succeed. A failed effort, they say, would be costly and potentially divert resources from native oyster restoration efforts.

Citing scientific uncertainty, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Secretary Tayloe Murphy has said several times in recent months that he does not believe the information needed to support the introduction of a breeding C. ariakensis population will be available next year, and has instead urged continued aquaculture experiments with sterile oysters.

Nonetheless, Ehrlich expressed confidence that a “science-based” decision could be reached by March based on more than $1 million in research being funded by the state.

“If the EIS provides a favorable conclusion, I am committed to implementing the oyster replenishment immediately,” he said. “We will not move prior to the completion of the study and then only if there are no unacceptable risks.”

Ehrlich insisted that oysters played a critical economic role in the Bay and are important ecologically because of their ability to help clear the water through their filter feeding. But building a population, Ehrlich said, would require “an aggressive timetable.”

“Delays in decisions can only result in continued delays in restoring the Bay,” he said.

Ehrlich’s letter followed by about three weeks a letter sent by Rebecca Hanmer, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, to DNR Secretary Ron Franks which said that federal agencies support “an ambitious timeline and a scientifically defensible EIS” but “remain concerned that the States’ proposed timeline is likely insufficient to reduce the scientific uncertainty associated with introduction of the nonnative oyster.”

She said federal agencies cooperating on the EIS development agreed to the March timetable for a draft environmental impact study only if there was enough information to make a decision with an acceptable level of risk. She said the draft EIS could not be issued under the National Environmental Policy Act until it has been agreed upon by the federal agencies cooperating in its development, which would include the EPA, NOAA, USFWS and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Hanmer suggested a meeting with Franks to discuss the research needs, but he never responded.