Maryland lawmakers say they plan to give a boost to restoration efforts targeting native oysters, while putting the brakes on any efforts to introduce a nonnative species into the Bay.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch, speaking at an annual environmental summit in January, said the restoration of native oysters—and not transplantation of imported Asian oysters—would be the top environmental priority this year, although he didn’t say exactly how much should be spent.
“We want to see progress with getting that native oyster replenished,” Busch said.
It was a contrast to the emphasis of former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who had pushed for research into whether Asian oysters, which have proven resistant to diseases that plague the native species, should be introduced into the Chesapeake. The idea also has strong support from a number of lawmakers, especially in Virginia.
Busch and other officials at the summit said that Ehrlich’s election loss to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley means a more deliberative approach on Asian oysters.
“Everybody I’ve talked to with any experience in this area is suspect of the Asian oyster,” Busch said.
Another lawmaker—Democrat Delegate Virginia Clagett—said officials should slow the study on the Asian oyster until they’re sure the species wouldn’t hurt the Bay’s ecology.
“If we let them in, it’s not like recalling a car or a toaster. They’re there for good,” Clagett said of the Asian oysters.
The potential introduction of the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, has been the subject of an ongoing Environmental Impact Study since the idea was proposed by Maryland and Virginia officials in 2003.
The Executive Committee of state and federal agency officials overseeing the development of the EIS said in January that a draft report is expected in May or June.
When the draft is released, the public will have an opportunity to provide input. After comments are reviewed, a time frame will be developed for the final EIS, the committee said in a statement.
The committee overseeing the plan’s development includes the Maryland and Virginia natural resource secretaries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District commander.
It also includes, in advisory roles, representatives from the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The goal of the EIS is to identify a preferred option for establishing an oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay that reaches levels comparable to the those during the period of 1920–1970. That would restore the ecological role of oysters in the Bay as well as the economic benefits of commercial oyster fishery.
Alternatives under consideration include the restoration of the native oyster and/or the introduction of an ecologically compatible nonnative oyster.
In its statement, the committee acknowledged that many of the more than 40 research studies initiated since the EIS began will still be in progress at the time of the draft report’s release.
It said the influence those studies may have on evaluating the risk of a particular course of action will be identified at the time of the draft report’s release, along with projected time lines for the completion of those studies.
“Given the importance of this venture and the significant resources committed to date, it is critical that we present a draft to the public in a timely fashion that highlights what we have learned so far,” said Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Preston Bryant. “This draft review is important, as it will allow us to better determine which elements of remaining research to be done are critical for the completion of the EIS.”