Sometime in the next few days, three men will make a decision that comes awfully close to playing God with the Chesapeake Bay.
The officials -- Cabinet secretaries from Virginia and Maryland and a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- will choose whether the estuary should get a new oyster. Seafood interests want to transplant an Asian species to supplement the decimated Eastern oyster, which can no longer fill its role in the bay's ecosystem and the region's deep-fat fryers.
A lot of people think the answer should be no.
Environmental groups, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say it's not clear whether the new oyster would become a kind of kudzu on the half shell, crowding out the old one, or simply die and waste everyone's money.
For now, the officials seem split. One is leaning against the Asian oyster, one is neutral and a third supports it, at least if the oyster is confined to shellfish farms.
Their choice could alter the Chesapeake in a way few recent decisions have. Once an animal that can lay 10,000,000 eggs is set loose, it's loose.
"There's no real experience in an open aquatic system like Chesapeake Bay . . . of completely removing a non-native species," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "So it really is a point of no return."
A favorable ruling could pave the way for watermen and shellfish farmers to put millions of the Asian oysters in the Chesapeake. That makes it the most important decision in a long regional debate -- all arising from the odd-sounding idea that one of America's great shellfish grounds needs a Chinese transplant to save it.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for, you know, 10 years. . . . We will potentially be looking back on this for decades to come, either with fondness or regret," said Bill Goldsborough of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Chesapeake's Eastern oysters, which once filtered its water and provided a living for generations of watermen, have dropped 99 percent below historic levels, because of overfishing and a pair of diseases.
[Photo Caption: Critics of the plan to add Asian oysters, above, to the Chesapeake say they could do further harm to the native Eastern oysters - Photo Credit: By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post Photo]
But Goldsborough said he thinks the Asian oyster is too much of a risk.
"It's like saying, 'We're going to replace our black bear with a panda bear from China, and assume the forest ecosystem is going to be fine,' " he said.
One idea that had frightened environmentalists -- putting the Asian oysters overboard and letting them spread unchecked -- now seems unlikely to be chosen.
"It's probably not as seriously discussed as it was before," said Col. Dionysios Anninos, commander of the Corps of Engineers' Norfolk District and one of the officials who will decide the oysters' fate. "The scientists [are] telling us there's a lot of uncertainty" about that plan, he said.
But there's still a major fight left.
Seafood dealers and watermen want to create a network of shellfish farms, where sterilized Asian oysters would be suspended in the water in mesh bags or cages. They say it would provide benefits -- a natural water filter and a valuable harvest -- without the worry of the oysters multiplying on their own.
"If you're serious in Chesapeake Bay about restoring an oyster industry . . . why aren't we looking at all the tools in the toolbox?" said A.J. Erskine, president of the Virginia Seafood Council.
The council has a pilot project raising 1 million Asian oysters at farms in Chesapeake tributaries, including the Potomac River. They sell out, Erskine said. Customers say the oyster has a slight metallic aftertaste when eaten on the half shell and tastes just like an Eastern oyster when cooked in a stew.
But environmental groups and some scientists have objected, saying that some of the supposedly sterile oysters will turn out not to be. They say the oysters will make sperm and eggs, which will be carried off by currents and brought together to make baby oysters, called spat.
The Asian oyster, without so much as a leg or a fin, will have effectively escaped.
"It will happen, and we don't know when," said Roger Mann, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
And once it happens, Mann said, the Asian oysters could wind up harming the native ones. In a bad accident of nature, the two species' sperm and eggs could essentially kill each other off.
"It doesn't appear as if it's going to coexist nicely," Mann said.
Now, a number of environmental groups and government agencies have lined up against approval for the Asian oyster. The EPA called it "environmentally unsatisfactory." New York, New Jersey and Delaware wrote a joint letter. The Natural Resources Defense Council said "what we need is not a new oyster" but more work to help the old one.
The Corps of Engineers was supposed to settle questions about the risks of the Asian oyster, with a 4 1/2-year, $15 million study.
But a draft report released in October found that "no specific level of risk" could be attached to the possibility that oyster farms might lead to an escape. Then, to compound the confusion, a curious resident spotted a large math error in one of the Corps' calculations: One key figure was off by a factor of 100,000.
"The research that's been done has been a little disappointing," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., the Virginia secretary of natural resources and another of the officials who will decide the oyster's fate. "After five years and $15 million or so, we still don't know if non-native [oyster] introduction would be successful, or if sterile non-native aquaculture would lead to a de facto introduction" of Asian oysters in the wild, Bryant said.
Despite that, Bryant said, he's leaning toward supporting Asian oysters in farms. He said he'd been persuaded by the success of Virginia's pilot program, which had never reported an oyster escape in seven years.
"Given that, why would we recommend backing away from that which has been successful?" Bryant said.
In Maryland, Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin is skeptical about the Asian oyster, a subordinate said this week.
That could make Anninos the deciding vote.
And he hasn't decided.
"My answer right now is I am neutral, and I'm not quite sure which way I'm going to lean," he said last week.
If the two states disagree, it is possible that they could issue separate rulings. But officials say that would only muddy the debate that their choice was supposed to clear up.