Maryland officials are developing a plan that could introduce reproducing populations of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake as early as next year to help revive oyster harvests and clean up the Bay.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich in June said his administration would seek approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to deploy fast-growing Crassostrea ariakensis oysters, which studies have shown is resistant to the diseases that devastated the native oyster population.

“The fact is this is an economic and environmental priority,” Ehrlich said. “You’re talking about the health of the Bay and goods produced.”

In his announcement, Ehrlich said the state remained committed to efforts to rebuild the Bay’s native species as well. The native species, though, has been hard hit by disease and its population is at an all-time low.

In July, the Virginia Seafood Council plans to deploy 1 million sterile oysters in the Bay to test the economics of growing the oysters in aquaculture containers. The Maryland proposal differs in that it would put reproducing oysters directly in the Bay.

But the proposal only launches what could be a lengthy review of the issue. When the Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit for the seafood council project earlier this year, it said it would require a full Environmental Impact Statement before any major additional projects were allowed. The review can only begin after a plan is submitted to the Corps.

Mike Slattery, assistant secretary for resource management services with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s aim was “simply to embark upon a broad, inclusive environmental impact process.”

He acknowledged that it was an “ambitious timetable” to think a full environmental impact statement could be completed and approved by the Corps in time to allow the release of small numbers of oysters next near.

“There is a lot that has to fall into place to have that come about,” he said.

Many officials have said they expect such a review to take at least two years.

So far, the state has not developed a formal plan to submit to the Corps outlining how or where oysters would be introduced into the Bay. Slattery said the state would consult with officials from Virginia and North Carolina, where interest in the Asian oyster is also high, and may submit a joint plan.

Wilford Kale, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said Virginia officials were “aware of what Maryland is seeking to do and we are supportive of their action.”

Slattery said state officials wanted to make the proposal now in part because they were concerned that federal agencies—many of which have expressed concern about any introduction of C. ariakensis—may develop an environmental impact statement without state involvement.

By submitting a plan, he said, the state would ensure a large role in writing the EIS. He said much of the guidance for writing the EIS would come from a review of the C. ariakensis issue which is expected to be released by the National Academy of Sciences in August.

Many scientists have indicated the foreign oyster may hold promise for the Chesapeake, possibly filling an ecological niche voided by the demise of the native species, C. virginica. But they have also cautioned that little is known about the life history of the foreign species—how it spawns, what substrates it uses to settle on or whether it builds reef habitats like the native species.

Concerned that decisions would be made in an information void, scientists around the Bay this year have stepped up research efforts to learn as much as they can about the foreign species. [See “Ariakensis oyster to be more closely scrutinized here, abroad,” Bay Journal, June 2003.]

Slattery said the state would not pursue introduction of the oysters if studies showed they would create a hazard for the Bay.

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed “serious concerns” about the state’s plans, especially its stated intention to complete the complex review within a year if possible.

“Until the outstanding questions are answered and comprehensive research and analysis is completed, any proposal to introduce reproducing Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay should not be considered,” said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with CBF. “We agree with Governor Ehrlich that this process should be driven by science not politics, but we are concerned that the one-year goal will not permit the necessary scientific evaluation and review.”

Mike Fritz, living resources coordinator with the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program office, said he viewed the Maryland announcement as being consistent with earlier agreements among state and federal agencies to develop a full environmental impact statement before further projects were done with the oyster.

Among other things, he said, the environmental review will make a risk assessment of any introduction, and evaluate potential alternatives, such as continued restoration efforts with native oysters. “We are going to be moving together in a responsible way,” Fritz said.

Heavy overfishing of oysters sharply reduced their Bay population and destroyed their reefs from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. In recent decades, the arrival of two diseases, MSX and Dermo, have ravaged the remaining population, accounting for 90 percent of the oyster mortalities before they reach the age of 3.

The Bay’s massive oyster population was once a critical component of the Chesapeake ecosystem. Their extensive reefs provided habitat for a variety of fish and other species, and scientists have estimated that their vast population once was able to filter water equivalent to the volume of the Chesapeake in a matter of days. It may take today’s population, now at a record low, more than three years to do that, according to the DNR.