Scientists Support Bill to Save Maryland's Oysters

By Megan Hartley
Capital News Service
Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - Fishery scientist Stephanie Reynolds had wanted to bring an oyster aquarium into the plush meeting room of the House Environmental Matters Committee to demonstrate how oysters can filter water from murky to clear in a matter of minutes.

Instead, she had to settle for a time-lapsed video, which she showed to legislators in an effort to explain the vital role Maryland's oysters play as the natural filters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Reynolds, who is from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, joined scientists from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Maryland Aquaculture Coordinating Council and the University of Maryland, in an effort to convince members of the Environmental Matters Committee about the dire situation for bay oysters. The committee is considering legislation called the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Bill which was introduced last week.

"Restoring the oyster population is a must if we are serious about cleaning up the bay at all," said Reynolds.

The bill would more strictly enforce harvest restrictions, set aside portions of the bay for oyster restoration and create a task force to investigate things like diseases and aquaculture. But the bill is not the only thing scientists wanted.

"The bill represents steps we can take, now we need the legislation to go hand in hand with the budget," said Reynolds.

Scientists want $7 million incorporated into the budget to build a new seeding facility at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory. The new facility will produce nearly six times as many oysters as it does now, according to Dr. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science.

"What has been lacking in the past is here now," Boesch said. "Watermen are behind it, because we are at a resource low point. The sports fishing industry is behind it because it is of ecological importance. There is a lot more public interest behind it now."

The Horn Point Laboratory supplies almost all the spat - or baby oysters - used for restoration in the different reefs of the bay, according Beth Lefebvre of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Boesch said he is optimistic that the money will be incorporated into the budget because the new administration strongly supports the bill.

The oyster population is about 4 percent of what it was in its peak years, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Their demise has been a result of over-harvesting and devastating diseases introduced to the bay in the late 1950s.

Some scientists have proposed introducing an Asian oyster to quickly increase populations in the bay. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers started studying this oyster in late 2003 and is working on an Environmental Impact Statement - due out next year - which will outline the possible effects of introducing a non-native oyster.

But Boesch said he thinks the Asian oyster is not the answer. He says the non-native oyster's shell is more fragile, making it an easier prey for crabs.

"A crab can more easily crack the shell of the non-native oyster. We put them in the tank and watched the crab go from one to the other," said Boesch.

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Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism