Volume XI, Issue 26 ~ June 26-July 2, 2003

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Importing Alien Oysters Makes a Risky Stew

We applaud Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s decision last week to begin an intense round of testing of those alien Asian oysters that everyone is talking about.

But it sounded to us like the state is a tad too far down the channel in deciding to introduce the oysters in the Chesapeake Bay absent overwhelming evidence that we shouldn’t.

We continue to believe that Maryland needs to be extremely cautious because of the potential damage of invasive species. That’s partly why we’re in the fix we’re in.

And that’s quite a fix.

So few oysters remain in the Bay that the species has gone from feast to famine. Up through the end of the 19th century, the Bay was full of oysters that chugged along like little engines that could, filtering the whole Bay while holding a party for fish and other aquatic life. All while sitting still!

Oysters clean up the Bay like miniature water treatment plants. They supported a diversified industry. And they taste good. Can you beat that?

We have, and almost to death. In a little over 100 years, humans have devoured the lion’s share of the Bay’s oyster and made so many messes that the oysters we haven’t eaten barely survive.

For more years than we can count, scientists, watermen and politicians have been seeking a way to stem the tide and are still trying. But so far it hasn’t worked.

Propelled by the seafood industry, scientists, mostly in Virginia, have insisted that we need to find — and quickly — an oyster that will live in the Bay. North Carolina, too, has been looking at imported oysters, and so have august bodies like the National Academies of Science.

Now Maryland has jumped aboard. This is a study with purpose. Ehrlich talked about “opportunity and restoration” and said that he intended to be “proactive and bold.”

For Ehrlich, the offensive marks his first informed policy statement on the Bay. He called oysters one of the big three in Bay restoration, along with healthy forests of underwater grasses and stanching the flow of nitrogen pollution into the Bay.

We like to see priorities spelled out, but we want to see the science before we bring in another alien species.

Too often these days, we’re seeing science ignored even by those anti-regulatory folks who patented the phrase “sound science.” No better example exists than the White House decision last week to delete a long section on the risks of global warming from the EPA’s review of environmental problems.

Nor are we comforted knowing that the Army Corps of Engineers will be playing a role in the study. The Corps has been a scandal-ridden agency of late, not above rigging studies to reach conclusion that its pals in Congress want.

When it comes to oysters, we’ve bumbled badly before. The only creature on earth eating more Bay oysters than humans is the bacteria MSX, which came here as a result of an experiment with Japanese oysters in the 1950s.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources says it wants the studies wrapped up in a year. We’re hoping that these Asian bivalves can flourish in the Bay. We’re hoping a Chesapeake oyster industry will again flourish.

But let’s not plan any oysterfests just yet.



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Last updated June 26, 2003 @ 1:19am