Possible "Endangered" Oysters Could Pose Problems

It may be tough to imagine oysters on the "endangered species" list. But that's a possibility under a federal petition filed in Maryland.

And those possible problems in the Chesapeake Bay, could affect oystering in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oysters harvested by Mississippi fishermen are the same species as those taken in waters along the Eastern seaboard. And that's the potential problem.

Steve Vanderkooy is fisheries management director for the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.

"Ninety one percent of the total U-S oyster production right now comes from the Gulf of Mexico. So any change to the status of that species could potentially impact our fisheries here," said Vanderkooy.

The petition filed in Maryland says the Eastern oyster needs to be listed as endangered or threatened because of the historic failure to protect its habitat. But while that may be the case in the Chesapeake Bay, those who manage the resource here say the habitat is healthy.

"I believe that we're moving forward in the right direction," said Scott Gordon, who manages shellfish for the Department of Marine Resources.

Gordon says programs like cultch planting help ensure the health and abundance of Gulf oysters. Also in the works is a plan to directly involve oyster fishermen.

"We are looking at doing a new stewardship program this year. To get the harvesters more actively involved with that. To get some ideas from them about how they can better manage the resource," Gordon said.

Steve Vanderkooy will help gather the facts and research to convince federal regulators that while the Eastern oyster may need tighter controls in the Northeast, management in the Gulf is working just fine.

"We're optimistic that the states will be able to provide the data and that the Gulf will not see any impact from this," he said.

Mississippi oystermen would welcome that outcome, the ability to pursue their catch without any federal regulatory interference.

The federal government may have the option of enacting conservation measures for a specific area only, like the Chesapeake Bay. A final decision from federal regulators is not expected until sometime next year.