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Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Maryland aquaculture leasing streamlined

Oyster growers had complained of delays, red tape

  • August 18, 2016
True Chesapeake Oyster Co. employee Ethan Davis works the tumbler at the company’s oyster farm on St. Jerome Creek.  (Dave Harp)

Federal regulators unveiled this week a new, “more streamlined” process by which Maryland oyster farmers can lease places in the Chesapeake Bay for raising their shellfish.

The revised permitting procedures announced by the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers come in response to long-voiced complaints from oyster farmers – backed up by Maryland’s U.S. senators – about delays and red tape in obtaining aquaculture leases.

The Corps said it is replacing a regional general permit, which it issued in 2011, with what it calls a Nationwide permit, which the agency says provides a “more streamlined” way to authorize new aquaculture activities.

The new process, which took effect Aug. 15, includes allowing unlimited acreage to be leased, and speeding up handling of proposed aquaculture projects by having federal and state officials review plans at the same time rather than sequentially.

Until now, oyster farmers were limited to leasing 50 acres if raising shellfish loose on the bottom, five acres if rearing them in cages and three acres if keeping them in floats near the water surface.  If a grower wanted more, he or she had to apply for an individual permit, which required more review, more public notice and a hearing.

In the past, aquaculture permits were reviewed first by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, then by the Corps.  That could take months, or even years in some cases, and gave anyone who opposed the lease two chances to voice objections at public hearings. Under the new process, those reviews are supposed to happen more or less concurrently.  Oyster farmers as well as Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have pushed for this provision.

An aquaculture advocate and a spokesman for Cardin welcomed those changes.

“I am hoping we have a much closer relationship between the state and federal permitting process,” said Don Webster, an oyster specialist with Maryland Sea Grant who has been involved in aquaculture since the 1970s. “Now that they’ve had the chance to work with the department and see how the system works, now a lot of their concerns have been alleviated.”

Cardin spokesman Tim Zink said the senator views the new permit as “major progress.” He added: “It will help individual permits to move forward significantly quicker and Maryland's oyster aquaculture industry grow bigger faster, sparking both economic and ecological vitality.”

Cardin and oyster farmers had asked the Corps for at a meeting last year: a process similar to the one in Virginia. In that state, which has had oyster aquaculture for more than a century, the state is the main permitting agency, and the Corps generally does not get involved unless there’s a problem. Permits in Virginia take three or four months; usually much more quickly than in Maryland.

The Corps proposed changes to its aquaculture permitting earlier this year. Spokesman Chris Gardner said the new Maryland permit is not exactly like Virginia’s, because the states have different resources and geography. But Corps officials say they now expect the wait time for a lease to be 60 days, compared with a combined state-federal review time before now of practically a year.

Another change calls for “removing certain existing geographic exclusion lines” that now limit where aquaculture can occur and “instead evaluating projects upstream of those lines on a case-by-case basis to address fish spawning habitat concerns.” Gardner said Baltimore District staff will evaluate proposed leases in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Corps permit contains at least one other provision not sought by oyster farmers, which doesn’t sound like streamlining. It says the agency is: “Requiring additional information in applications to enable the District to ensure that the activities authorized have minimal individual and cumulative adverse impacts on the aquatic environment and the public interest, including identifying how adverse effects to navigation and/or ingress/egress from neighboring properties have been avoided.”

Gardner was unable to provide any further information about that provision. At least one oyster farmer contacted expressed concern that if the Corps is requiring more to apply for a permit, that could delay the process. Cardin’s spokesman said he thinks this provision intended to weigh the concerns of watermen worried that leases might affect their access to fishing grounds, and of shoreline residents worried about a proliferation of aquaculture operations in their vicinity.

Oyster farmers have pressed their congressional representatives to advocate for changes after several years of setbacks in wrangling with the Corps.

Calvert County oyster farmer Jon Farrington complained his oyster nursery had to undergo the same degree of scrutiny as would a proposed oil derrick when he first applied for leases in the early 2000s; the Corps also wanted navigational studies when Farrington’s farm was on a tiny creek that only his property bordered.

Patrick Hudson, who bought a working oyster farm in St. Mary’s County about five years ago, said he lost nearly two years of growing time while waiting for state and federal regulators to re-survey his site. Johnny Shockley, a Hooper’s Island oyster farmer and aquaculture equipment manufacturer who is now developing his own hatchery, endured several years of bureaucratic delay state agencies as well as the Corps to obtain his permits.

And perhaps no one has endured more oyster bureaucracy than Donald Marsh, who began his attempt to grow oysters in Chincoteague Bay in 2007 and finally got his Corps permit in 2015. This year, Marsh told the Bay Journal, he has gotten his oysters in the water at last.

 

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

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