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Editor's Note: A bivalve brawl is brewing

Fiona Robinson
Fiona Robinson
August 01, 2005

Seafood buyers, by nature, are not political animals. You’d be hard pressed to find any buyer wearing a tie, owning a briefcase or flying to Washington, D.C., to conduct business. But if you buy or sell Eastern oysters, the species that dominates the market and is harvested off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, you should be aware of a brewing political (and scientific) debate over whether the bivalves belong on the Endangered Species list.

As this issue went to press in late July, members of the oyster industry descended upon Capitol Hill to defend the Eastern oyster against a possible listing under the Endangered Species Act. Ecosystem Initiatives Advisory Services, an
environmental consulting firm, in January petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to grant special protection to Eastern oysters with an ESA listing (see July SFB Newsline, page 6).

Processors, distributors and other oyster-industry members, coordinated by staff from the National Fisheries Institute who also took part, testified before the House Committee on Resources on the potentially devastating economic and consumer impact of listing the Eastern oyster as endangered or threatened.

This brouhaha started when EIAS filed its petition to stop potential seeding of Asian oyster culture in Chesapeake Bay. Placing Eastern oysters on the ESA list would prevent that seeding from ever happening, and would cripple an industry that in 2003 harvested 30 million pounds of oysters with a wholesale value of $76 million. An ESA listing would dramatically reduce, or eliminate altogether, the Eastern oyster harvest.

This is just the beginning of a long battle for anyone who buys or sells oysters. The industry would do well to learn from the plight of salmon farmers in Maine. The ESA listing of wild Atlantic salmon put the state’s salmon-farming industry in court with environmentalists for years — and the salmon farmers lost. Now there is very little hope of expanding salmon farming in Maine until the ESA process is reformed. Eastern-oyster harvesters will face the very same battle if their species is put on the list.

Oyster buyers who have shied away from politics in the past may want to put on a tie and get face time with their local politicians. And the oyster industry had better start padding its legal coffer now, because if history prevails, there’s a long, expensive battle ahead.

August 2005 - SeaFood Business

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