HYANNIS -- A federal agency is investigating whether the popular Eastern oyster should be protected as an endangered species, a designation that could severely limit the local catch.
The National Marine Fisheries Service's began an investigation after an environmental consultant claimed that overfishing, lost habitats, and disease have taken the Eastern oyster to the brink of extinction.
W. Dieter Busch of Ecosystem Initiatives Advisory Services in Maryland cited federal oyster data that show that annual landings along the Atlantic coast have declined to less than 2 percent of their historical amounts.
Fisheries service spokeswoman Teri Frady told the Cape Cod Times the agency was assembling a panel of specialists to study the issue. NMFS must make a decision on the oysters' status by January.
If the agency decides the Eastern, or American, oyster is endangered, shellfishermen from Maine to Louisiana could be prohibited from harvesting it. The agency can also take less restrictive measures, such as lowering harvesting limits.
Eastern oysters are one of the most profitable varieties in the region. In 2003, they generated more than $1.2 million in revenue for the Cape and surrounding islands, more than any other shellfish species.
The possible endangered listing comes after one of the worst red tide outbreaks in New England's history. The toxic algae outbreak shut down shellfish beds for much of June and part of July, and cost the shellfish industry an estimated $3 million each week.
On Wednesday, the state Legislature passed a resolution objecting to the endangered species listing for the oyster. Rhode Island and New York have passed similar resolutions.
''Including the American oyster on the endangered species list would come as another major setback for the Massachusetts shellfish industry, just as they are recovering from the devastation of the red tide outbreak," state Senator Robert O'Leary, Democrat of Barnstable, wrote in a press release.
O'Leary and state Representative Shirley Gomes, Republican of Harwich, sponsored the resolution.
Michael Hickey, chief shellfish biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told the Times he does not think the oyster will qualify for endangered status.
He said comparisons with the huge harvests of a century ago are not valid because so much of the oyster's habitat has been dredged for harbors or marinas. The catch in Massachusetts has been relatively stable for the past 20 years, he said.
''Overall, the resource here is in pretty good shape," he said.