In a blow to Chesapeake Bay restoration, oyster disease research funding was cut by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in its proposed 1996 budget, an action that jeopardizes efforts to restore what was once one of the Bay's most important economic - and ecological - species.

The research program, which dates to 1989, has focused on the parasites MSX and dermo, which kill most of the Bay's oysters before they reach market size. The diseases are primarily responsible for record low oyster harvests in recent years.

Oyster plans in both Maryland and Virginia, as well as the Bay Program's Oyster Fishery Management Plan, have identified disease research as a key element of any recovery effort.

"If that budget holds up through Congress, the oyster disease research program comes to a screeching halt and the likelihood of getting anything resolved on that is probably set back by another 5 to 10 years," said William Rickards, director of the Virginia Sea Grant College Program, based at the University of Virginia.

Funding for the research program always has been precarious: Only once in its history - last year - was it included in any administration's budget. In other years, money for the program was added by Congress.

But with Congress focused on cutting spending and balancing the budget, many believe that adding money for the 1996 fiscal year is unlikely.

"We were distressed to learn about that (the administration's action)," said an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. He said trying to restore the funds in Congress "is going to be difficult to do in this climate. I really don't see the prospects for it, quite frankly."

"Obviously in this environment, any and all programs are threatened, including oyster disease research," said an aide to Rep. Herbert Bateman, R-Va., who has promoted the program in the past. "We're doing everything we can do to revive it. We just don't know how successful Mr. Bateman will be at this point. But obviously it's something that's important to the Chesapeake Bay and all the watermen who work with the Bay, plus oysters are a natural cleanser for the Bay."

The program is getting $1.5 million for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The money for next year was cut in the Clinton administration's budget as control of the program was being transferred from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the NOAA's Sea Grant program as part of an effort to involve oyster researchers from around the country on the problem. But in the new budget, Sea Grant, a university-based research and education program, is slated to be cut to $49 million next year from its current $54 million.

Chris D'Elia, director of the Maryland Sea Grant College Program, said a Bay-specific oyster disease research program was unlikely to be restored in Congress. Instead, he said, an effort would be made to create a national research program to address shellfish issues in general around the country, though the outlook for that is also uncertain.

"To save the program, it may be necessary to broaden it out and get wider congressional support," D'Elia said. "The whole issue of shellfish disease is a serious one around the country, and deserves additional funding. In fact, I would argue the program should be expanded at least by a million or two [dollars] and really opened up widely around the country."

But D'Elia added, "I am concerned about losing the focus on the Bay effort in this process."

Once, millions of bushels of oysters were pulled from the Bay annually. For decades, they were one of the most lucrative species for watermen.

In addition to its economic value, many scientists believe the oyster plays an important role in the Bay's health. They feed by filtering large amounts of algae out of the water. Much of the Bay's water quality problem stems from an overabundance of algae caused by excessive amounts of nutrients flowing into the Chesapeake. A healthy oyster population, some scientists believe, would help improve and maintain the Bay's water quality by controlling algae.

In recent years, too few oysters have survived the disease onslaught to play a significant economic or ecological role. In the 1993-94 season, the Virginia harvest hit a record low of 7,000 bushels. Maryland's harvest was about 70,000 bushels, a 40 percent drop from the previous year's record low. Last fall, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission closed its portion of the Bay and all but one tributary to oyster harvesting.

As recently as 1987, the Baywide harvest was more than 1 million bushels - and that was a several-fold drop from the early 1970s. In the late 1800s, harvests peaked at more than 10 million bushels.

Overfishing helped drive the oyster population down, but it has been the advent of the two diseases which have been spreading through the Bay since the 1950s that has prevented any rebound. There was no coordinated effort to address the disease issue until NOAA began its oyster research program in 1989, focusing on the problems in the Chesapeake and along the mid-Atlantic coast.

"In the days before the oyster disease research program was funded, very little was getting done with these parasites," said Steve Jordan, who heads the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, a research facility jointly funded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service. "About all we could do was monitor them on a year-to-year basis and keep a record of where they were and how severe the problems were."

Since the research program began, he and other researchers point to a number of accomplishments that have helped oyster managers, such as understanding conditions which are most conducive to the spread of the diseases, as well as an improved understanding about the diseases and their relationship with the oyster - information that may one day help breed a disease-resistant oyster.

"I've been involved with a number of research programs over the years and I have to say that I can't think of one that's been as productive in as short a time as this one has," Jordan said.

In recent years, researchers have made headway in being able to culture dermo in the laboratory, making it easier to study. In addition, several "races" of dermo have been identified, which may provide information that can be used to develop resistant oysters.

Researchers have been developing new techniques that will allow dermo to be identified in the water. Likewise, new techniques are being developed to determine whether oysters are infected. That ability is particularly important for management efforts because many recovery strategies hinge on trying to transfer disease-free oysters into uncontaminated areas. With current technology, though, it is difficult - and time consuming - to try to determine whether oysters, or the water, are infected.

Much of the research has gone toward trying to understand the life cycle of the diseases and how they infect the oysters - a basic understanding that is required before plans can be made for an oyster recovery.

Other research efforts have gone toward trying to understand why some species of oysters appear to be more resistant than others - information that could lead to the breeding of a disease-resistant oyster that will survive in the Bay. Recent studies have found that the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, is more resistant to the diseases than the native oyster, another finding that makes a genetically engineered oyster more likely. Some varieties of the native species, Crassostrea Virginica, also appear more resistant than others.

Scientists have also learned more about climatic and water quality conditions - such as salinity - which can affect disease abundance. And through the development of a new Geographic Information System, scientists are able to track oyster populations and locations, along with water quality parameters that affect the diseases.

Ironically, only weeks before the budget cut was announced, more than 80 scientists and managers involved with oyster research met for a two-day workshop to review recent accomplishments and set research priorities for the next several years.

"I was very impressed with how much we know that we didn't know five years ago," said Jim Wesson, the oyster management specialist for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "To cut it now is a significant blow. The potential seems to be very large right now compared with where we were five or 10 years ago when it first started and we knew so little."

The cut-off in oyster disease funding comes at a time when there is great interest in creating oyster habitat, such as reefs, in the Bay. That, scientists noted, creates a paradoxical situation in which new oyster reefs will be available but there will be little money to evaluate reasons for their success or failure.

"Disease research has to be part of the whole pie," said Robert Pfeiffer, executive director of the Maryland Oyster Recovery Partnership. "It's not just sanctuaries and the opportunity to allow oysters to naturally recover from the fishery impact. You also have to come up with some answers to the disease questions that are still out there."

The partnership is a non-profit venture created to implement recommendations of the Maryland Oyster Roundtable, a 40-member that last year issued a series of recommendations to promote oyster recovery.

The partnership is working on a project to move disease-free oyster larvae, reared in a hatchery, to a newly constructed oyster bar in the Choptank River. Monitoring the site, which will be off-limits to harvesting, was to be done by the Oxford Lab. Now, Pfeiffer said, there may not be enough money to do the level of evaluation that had been planned.

Likewise, VMRC's Wesson - who has worked on an oyster habitat creation project in the Piankatank River - said it would be a mistake to go ahead with habitat creation efforts without moving forward on disease research.

"We've got to find an oyster that will live in the Bay with the conditions that we have," Wesson said. "Habitat will be critical for the oysters in general, but first we need some of the basic information on disease processes.

"There's nothing on the table that says we've got a solution," Wesson said of research efforts, "but there's so much on the table that says there may be a solution, you can't leave it half done."