Andy, a waterman, found fertile bottom to lease on historic oyster grounds near Broomes Island, a one-time watermen's village in Southern Maryland that's now home to many Washington commuters. They completed an application, placed an ad in the newspaper as part of the public notice requirement and generated letters of support from their neighbors. Because they'd heard that Maryland was encouraging aquaculture and had streamlined its once-arduous permitting processes, they figured it would take a few months.
More than a year later, the Bucks finally received their lease. Then, the state told them they needed another permit if they wanted to add a small nursery — and it would take several months to get it.
"It was just so time-consuming. There were so many hang-ups," said Jill, who runs a daycare center in addition to her oyster farm. "It's just very frustrating, the fact that people see the potential, they get very excited, and the process gets so long, and they wonder, is there ever going to be a light at the end of the tunnel?"
Nearly 18 months after the Department of Natural Resources entered into a deal with the Army Corps of Engineers to streamline the permitting process, delays persist. The department has issued 51 leases for growing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries since the revamped process began in September 2011. But it still has 85 applications that are backlogged in the pipeline.
The DNR's aquaculture coordinator, Karl Roscher, said he is hoping to have at least 30 of those processed by March 15, so those would-be farmers can take advantage of the warmer water and the growing season.
Roscher said the delay is largely due to a lack of staff. One person, Becky Thur, is responsible for reviewing and processing all of the applications. Roscher said the department now has authority to hire one more full-time person for the job, as well as a three-day-a-week staffer.
In some cases, Roscher said, the applications have not been complete. But more often, he said, the delays come from the painstaking work to make sure the lease will not conflict with fishing, crabbing, navigation or recreation. The state also has to verify the lease coordinates and send out staff to survey the bottom.
"It's a lot of work, and it takes some time," he said.
Once Maryland finishes its part of the process, the application goes to the Baltimore office of the Army Corps of Engineers. That process has "definitely been streamlined," Roscher said, with reviews taking about 60 days — instead of close to a year — to grant a general permit. Such permits cover growers who seek up to 50 acres of leases directly on the bottom, 5 acres of cages on the bottom, or 3 acres of floating projects. Those specifications cover most oyster operations.
To many would-be oyster farmers, it's surprising that the DNR is the reason for the delay. The agency has championed aquaculture for close to a decade with the hope of helping to clean the Bay through filtering, easing fishing pressure on the wild stock, and creating work for watermen as the wild fishery all but disappeared.
Department leaders fought to change state law so that oyster farmers could lease bottom in every county instead of poor bottom in just a few places. Roscher and Thur have been cheerleaders in the leasing process, helping applicants through a thicket of paperwork and suggesting that laws be further modified to encourage the industry. The department has created a mapping tool to help oyster farmers determine if a piece of bottom is suited for leasing; partnered with University of Maryland to make oyster-growing workshops available; and worked with a state funding agency, MARBIDCO, to provide more than $2 million in low-interest loans for watermen who want to enter the business.
"They're doing their best. But it seems like they're very understaffed and these cutbacks have led to an environment that is just not very business friendly," said Patrick Hudson, an oyster farmer in Southern Maryland who has been waiting nine months for the department to approve an expansion of a small lease in front of his property. "In aquaculture, it's all about being able to plan ahead. It's not just about the growing season."
Hudson's company, Chesapeake Fresh, was granted a couple of bottom leases in 2011 and a third small plot of 3 acres in front of his property. After being in business for a few months, he concluded that the dock in front of his property would be a better location to grow oysters. Not only would he save on fuel costs, he said, but the neighbors also preferred it.
But while he considered that a modification, DNR required he apply for a new lease. He did so on May 15, but the agency needed more information on the coordinates. By the time it was straightened out, it was already Aug. 6 — and DNR staff considered that the date it received the application. Because the department handles applications on a first-come, first-serve basis, the coordinates back-and-forth cost Hudson three months.
While Roscher expects Hudson's application to be among those processed in March, Hudson said he doesn't feel like he's any closer than he was in August to getting his lease.
"The process is going to have to be more nimble and flexible. Some of these are slam dunks, and certain ones can be fast-tracked," Hudson said. "This is an expansion of an existing lease that the community is in favor of. This should have been a rubber stamp, basically."
Jon Farrington, an oyster farmer just up the road from Hudson in Calvert County, understands Hudson's frustrations all too well. Farrington's original company, Johnny Oysterseed, was one of the first in Maryland to obtain a lease in 2005. He waited 14 months for the Army Corps to sign off on his application for a floating upweller that was about the size of a small porch. Since then, he's expanded his seed business into a grow-out operation, called Calvert Crests. He's been active in the push to shift policy in favor of aquaculture, serving on the board of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
Farrington has 16 acres under lease now, and he had been raising oysters on shell on the bottom. But last winter, he decided he'd like to grow oysters in bottom cages instead on half of one lease, for a total of 5 acres. He applied on Jan. 28, 2012.
For months, he heard nothing official. Finally, at a meeting with the Aquaculture Review Board a couple of months ago, Farrington learned that the DNR's boating service office had raised a flag because the depth on the lease, at just 5 feet, could pose a navigation hazard with cages.
But Farrington, a military engineer by training, knew his lease was deeper — he'd used a bottom sounder, overlayed with GPS coordinates, to chart the area at 200-foot intervals. His research concluded the lease was 8 feet on one end and 7 feet on the other. He shared this information with DNR staff and said they liked his plan to move his cages to the deeper end.
But months later, he still doesn't have permission to do so.
"To me, it looks like everything is going through the same path that it always did," Farrington said. "The assumption was that it was going to start working much like it did in Virginia, where it's an expedited path."
Virginia's leasing program for oysters has been a huge success. Combined, the public-bottom fishery and the private company fishery are a $25 million industry, with each making up about half of that. Maryland's aquaculture industry is far short of that, with many companies just harvesting their first oysters this year. Its public fishery last year was valued at about $3 million, although it will be more for 2012–13 because of an excellent spat set, state officials said.
Virginia's century-old leasing law allows farmers to put both cages and shell on the bottom, with no permit, as long as the structures are less than 12 inches high. Consequently, most cages built in the state conform to those specifications, and almost no one grows oysters in floats, said Jim Wesson of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. For those who do need permits, the wait is only about four months.
"That system has been going since the 1900s, and it hasn't really changed much," Wesson said. "People here do know how to work it better, and we encourage them to minimize delays."
Part of the problem in Maryland is that, while aquaculture is a fluid business, the regulatory process and leasing structure are not. Many oyster farmers only realize the modifications they need when they begin trying to grow oysters. Just as Hudson realized the near shore was a better location and Farrington wanted to try cages, the Bucks decided they'd like to grow their own seed in a floating upweller, in which oysters of different sizes take in water and farmers move them into different baskets as they grow. But the state required a separate lease for the seed upweller, even though it would be on their dock.
It took a visit from Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to move along their upweller application. And now, Roscher said, the General Assembly will introduce legislation to say that lease applications can include the upweller systems.
Del. Anthony O'Donnell, who represents Southern Maryland and serves on the Aquaculture Coordinating Council, is urging the department to do more.
"We have people who are willing to invest millions in this industry to help restore the health of the Bay, at least partially, and that money is sitting on the sidelines," he said at a recent meeting. "I consider it a very, very serious problem. I keep saying it, like a voice in the wilderness."
But it's useful to remember that Maryland has done more in the last two years to lease bottom than it did in the previous 100. Most gratifying, said aquaculture expert Donald Webster of Maryland Sea Grant, is that so many watermen are becoming involved.
"I would like someone to be able to walk up to a kiosk and get a lease," he said, "but we have to be practical."