Maryland oyster farmers, who’ve long complained that bureaucratic red tape and permitting delays are holding back their fledgling industry, should see speedier approvals of their aquaculture projects under a streamlined review process that federal regulators unveiled Friday.

The Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing two major changes to aquaculture permitting in the state, which officials said would open the door to larger oyster-growing operations in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and shave months off the time it takes to review them.

“This is a huge step forward for this entire movement that we started six years ago,” said Johnny Shockley, a Hooper’s Island oyster farmer and aquaculture equipment manufacturer.  He endured several years of bureaucratic delay state agencies as well as the Corps to obtain his permits.

The proposed changes are part of a new five-year permit governing Maryland aquaculture that the Corps intends to issue later this year. It would replace an existing regulatory scheme that expires Aug. 15.

Under the new plan, oyster farmers would no longer be limited in the size of operation for which they could seek approval.  The current “Regional General Permit” for aquaculture only allows for 50 acres to cultivate oysters loose on the bottom, no more than five acres for raising bivalves in cages on the bottom, and just three acres if they’re kept in floats on the water’s surface. If oyster farmers want to work larger areas, they must apply for an individual permit -- a process that can take years and requires both public notice and a hearing.

The Corps also is proposing to allow for joint federal and state review of aquaculture projects.  Now, it can take the Maryland Department of Natural Resources six months to a year to process an application to lease bottom or water for raising oysters, after which the Corps spends another 5 ½ months, on average, studying it. 

The combined review proposal should reduce wait times to 60 days, according to Corps spokeswoman Sarah Gross.

“We’ve learned that there is room for improvement,” said Beth Bachur, the Baltimore District regulatory branch chief. She added that “we’ve listened to the feedback received over the past five years, and we intend to incorporate changes that will make the process more efficient.”

The agency is taking comments from the public until May 31.

But the Corps has already heard from many frustrated oyster farmers, who have struggled to get through red tape, as well as resistance from waterfront landowners and commercial watermen.

Calvert County oyster farmer Jon Farrington complained his oyster nursery had to undergo the same degree of scrutiny as would a proposed oil derrick; 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. 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.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, learned the magnitude of the permitting problem a year ago at a local food event at a Baltimore restaurant. He then invited oyster farmers to the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge to share their grievances with the new commander of the Corps’ Baltimore District, Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne. Cardin had a third meeting with oyster farmers earlier this month in Southern Maryland.

Oyster farmers like Farrington, who has been raising shellfish since the early 2000s, had thought they’d already won the Corps permit battle.

Five years ago, the Corps agreed to let oyster farmers operate under its initial general permit.  But the new permit didn’t improve matters much. And last year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, wrote to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works at the Pentagon, to outline the logjam in Baltimore.

“Sadly, Maryland’s aquaculture industry has been stymied by the long and arduous permit approval process while Virginia’s has been flourishing under a less complex process,” she wrote.

Virginia now has the largest oyster aquaculture industry on the East Coast. But for decades, it faced similar bureaucratic problems from its Norfolk-based Corps. In 1993, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Corps established a joint permit process to approve applications in about three months. Corps officials in Norfolk have said they sign off on the permits unless they or the state identify a problem that needs further investigation.

Maryland’s oyster farmers as well as their federal and state advocates have been asking for a process similar to Virginia’s. Now, oyster farmers are cautiously optimistic that they’re getting close.

Maryland has long envied Virginia’s oyster industry. The state has saltier waters, which has resulted in both oysters and clams reaching market-size more quickly. It also has had aquaculture in place for more than a century, though it became an industry leader only in the last decade as scientists developed sterile native oysters that could withstand two diseases that had caused natural bivalve populations to all but collapse. Maryland changed its restrictive leasing laws in 2009, and in 2010 it began taking applications for aquaculture.

Maryland DNR officials told lawmakers this year that oyster farmers had leased 5,660 acres; in contrast, Virginia has 104,000 acres under lease. For 2014, the estimated dockside value for Maryland aquaculture was about $3 million; the wild harvest exceeded $14 million. In contrast, the 2014 value of Virginia farm-raised oysters topped $17 million.

Maryland officials, university scientists and economic development proponents see oyster farming as a boon. Oysters filter the water and are magnets for marine life and ecosystem diversity. Oyster farms offer good jobs in coastal areas that don’t have much economic infrastructure.

State officials have taken steps to over the last six years to streamline their permitting process; the number of agencies involved in leasing was consolidated from a half dozen to one, and primary responsibility was shifted from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Natural Resources.

“Everyone wants to see more oysters in the water, both the corps and DNR,” said Karl Roscher, who oversees shellfish leasing at the DNR.   “They have been working with us. They have heard from leaseholders, and the senators, and they are taking action.”

Gross, the Baltimore District spokeswoman, said the Corps has been working on this change for months, and the expiration of the old permit was driving the timeline.

The Corps announcement came a day after a Senate committee approved a Cardin proposal to conduct an independent review of the Corps’ role in regulating aquaculture. 

The provision, added to a bill re-authorizing the Water Resources Development Act, would require an assessment of legal and regulatory issues facing the aquaculture industries in four regions, including the Chesapeake Bay. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on which Cardin serves, approved the legislation on April 28, setting the stage for a vote by the full Senate. The Corps alerted the Bay Journal of its new permitting plans the next morning, and announced them publicly later that day.

“Our hope was, if you started to look at the way business was done, side by side, region by region, you would see there were some glaring inequities affecting oyster farmers. If I’m the Army Corps, I want to be proactive if there’s a potential issue shining a spotlight on them,” said Cardin spokesman Tim Zink. The Corps, he added, “definitely saw it move and become part of the bill.”

Zink said that, since the change in command at the Baltimore Corps, the agency has been amenable to removing barriers.

“It couldn’t be a more perfect move, as far as we’re concerned,” Zink said. “They have new leadership there, and that new leadership is looking at things with fresh eyes.”

Oyster farmers, Cardin’s office and state and federal regulators recently resolved another bureaucratic hurdle to oyster farming. Corps officials told two permit applicants that to avoid harming rare sea turtles and sturgeon, they would need to put a plastic sheath on any lines tethering their submerged oyster cages to floats on the water’s surface. The move was recommended by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which wanted to ensure that turtles and sturgeon, both federally protected endangered species, don’t become entangled in the cage lines.

Oyster farmers say they rarely see either species around their operations, and would like to see scientific data proving that cage mooring lines pose entanglement hazards. Other fisheries that use lines, such as crab pots and lobster pots, don’t have to sheath them. Neither do Virginia oyster farmers, who are regulated by a different Corps office.

Sheathing the lines would have made oyster farming “actually quite unworkable,” said Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. A site visit with federal fisheries officials and Maryland’s aquaculture coordinator has put the issue to rest, and the sheathing won’t be required.