July 19, 2005

Oyster isn’t endangered, fishermen tell Congress

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Eastern Oyster may be in trouble
in the Chesapeake Bay, but any move to protect it as an
endangered species could devastate thriving oyster fisheries
from Maine to Louisiana, fishermen told Congress on Tuesday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to decide
by January whether the oyster should be listed as threatened or
endangered under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could
prohibit it from being harvested nationwide.

The agency took up the review after an environmental
consultant, Wolf-Dieter Busch, argued that pollution, disease
and overharvesting makes such protection necessary.

The Eastern Oyster harvest has declined from 161 million
pounds in 1890 to 2.4 million pounds in 2003, according to the
fisheries service.

Busch's petition pointed to conditions on the Chesapeake
Bay, where oyster harvests are at 1 percent of their historical
levels, but it overlooked other areas such as New England and
the Gulf Coast where oyster fisheries are thriving, fishermen
and academic experts told Congress.

Any problems in the Chesapeake Bay should be dealt with on
a local level, rather than placing the oyster off-limits to
fishermen and aquaculture growers up and down the East Coast,
fishermen told the House Resources Committee.

"If the listing does go forward we can be assured that the
market for oysters will collapse," said Robert Rheault, a Rhode
Island oyster farmer and president of the East Coast Shellfish
Growers Association.

In the Chesapeake Bay, Endangered Species Act protection
could slow efforts to restore oyster habitats and force
shucking houses to sell their valuable waterfront property,
said Lake Cowart, vice president of the Cowart Seafood Corp., a
Virginia oyster packer.

"This petition is a misuse of the Endangered Species Act,"
he said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Pombo said the petition was
a "half-baked analysis" that should not have been taken up by
the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"If the current restoration activities to clean up the bay
are not working, let's look at that, rather than waste the
federal government's time and unnecessarily scare legitimate
businessmen by ... studying a nuisance petition," the
California Republican said.