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By DEVLIN BARRETT
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Oyster growers from Long Island to Louisiana urged a House panel Tuesday to reject an effort to declare Atlantic oysters an endangered species, saying the move would only endanger growers' livelihoods.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is conducting an investigation into whether overfishing, lost habitats and disease have brought the Eastern oyster to the brink of extinction.

House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., scoffed at that notion, saying the agency may be trying to protect its own future instead of the oysters.

"They are not acting in the best interest of the species, but rather creating work as a means of self-preservation," said Pombo, who is also trying to repair what he says are flaws in the Endangered Species Act.

The real threat, according to Long Island Farm Bureau director Joseph Gergela, is to the people who make a living harvesting oysters.

"Where I come from, farmers, baymen and fishermen are the endangered species," said Gergela.

Four representatives of the oyster business argued that a petition seeking to have the oyster declared endangered is a misguided attempt to block the introduction of an Asian oyster species seen by some as a chance to revive the Chesapeake's decimated oyster population.

The current population of oysters in the Chesapeake is estimated to be just 1 percent of its historic highs, even though shellfishermen as far north as Rhode Island and as far south as Louisiana and Texas still harvest millions of pounds of oyster meat a year.

Declaring the oyster endangered, the oystermen argued, would scare consumers away from ordering any oysters, even if they are grown in the prosperous Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean.

Robert Rheault, who runs an oyster farm in Rhode Island, said that even if the federal government makes a distinction for Chesapeake oysters, those ordering off restaurant menus will not.

"Unfortunately, the consumer tends not to be very savvy. If they hear that oysters are in trouble somewhere they're likely to shy away from the product everywhere," said Rheault.

By the end of the hearing, the committee chairman sounded exasperated about claims that oysters were endangered or threatened.

"We've got billions of them," Pombo said.

But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., responded that there should be "trillions."
 
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