Maryland oyster farmers have long said that growing the shellfish is the easy part of their job. The hard part: all of the bureaucratic red tape they have to wade through to obtain their leases in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The stories are legendary. Calvert County oyster farmer Jon Farrington waited more than a year for a permit to grow oysters. It would have taken the same amount of time, he said, had he decided to build an oil derrick. Patrick Hudson, who farms oysters about 30 miles south of Farrington in St. Mary’s County, had to completely reapply for his farm’s leases, even though they had already been used by the oyster farmer from whom he took over the oyster grounds. The state and the federal government had to come and remeasure and resurvey all of the ground, costing him close to two years of growing time. Perhaps no one has endured more oyster bureaucracy than Donald Marsh, a former banker who has been trying to grow oysters in Chincoteague Bay since 2007. Marsh is still negotiating his permit with the Corps.
Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin Cardin invited a few oyster farmers to Horn Point Laboratory near Cambridge for a discussion on how he could help ease those permitting problems. Sitting next to him was the man whom many oyster farmers and policy makers hope will make it happen: Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, the new commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore district.
Chamberlayne’s resume is impressive, and includes a Bronze Star. But the Alexandria, VA, native admitted he knew little about oysters or the process of permitting oyster farms when he took over the position a couple of months ago.
Cardin filled him in on some of the challenges, which the senator had learned about at a meeting in the spring. The oyster farmers at that meeting spoke so pointedly about their permitting issues that Cardin and his staff decided the issue deserved its own discussion. Before the discussion, Cardin and Chamberlayne toured the Horn Point Hatchery, which raises oysters largely for restoration purposes. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton was also there.
“How important is this meeting today? It’s everything to me,” said Johnny Shockley, a waterman-turned-oyster farmer who operates Chesapeake Gold out of Hooper’s Island and has helped many other oyster farmers enter the business. “There are going to be concerns, but we need to put first the fact that establishing the industry is a game-changer.”
Shockley has long urged regulators to emulate the process in Virginia, where the Corps and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission work closely and seamlessly. A Virginia oyster farmer generally receives his permit in three months. In Maryland, it rarely takes less than six months, oyster farmers say, and often takes closer to two years.
In Virginia, the Corps doesn’t weigh in unless there’s a problem, whereas in Maryland, the agency has its own approval process. One example of a delay: Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources will hold a public meeting on a lease as part of the agency’s due diligence. Two months later, the Corps will hold a public meeting for the same reason.
Hudson, who at 26 was headed to law school when he made a detour into oyster farming, asked Cardin, Chamberlayne and Belton why the public process couldn’t happen all at once. Two processes, he argued, give angry neighbors two occasions to protest a lease. Indeed, homeowners protesting one lease recently at a DNR hearing told the Bay Journal that, if they lost, they would protest it again at the Corps’ hearing. Marsh found that was the case with the homeowners who protested his lease; though they were not concerned about the issues the Corps raised, such as navigation, they took the public process as an opportunity to delay the farm’s permit.
Hudson stressed that the public had a role in the process, particularly those who live on creeks next to oyster operations. Once they understand what the oyster farmers are trying to do, he said, they generally support it.
“We’re not building a dam. We’re not building a power plant. We’re putting oysters in the water, and every oyster in the water is a good oyster,” Hudson said. “But the public is not always supportive of what we are trying to do only because they do not understand it.”
Cardin urged Chamberlayne and Belton to take a close look at the Virginia process “so we can learn from experiences.”
When asked for specific examples of the delays, Hudson pointed to a two-month waiting period for a study to be conducted on sea turtles and sturgeon. Shockley pointed out that, in a lifetime of working the Chesapeake, he rarely saw either. And crab pots, which are far more likely to entangle such creatures, require no such studies before watermen deploy them in the Bay.
Another oyster farmer, Bobby Leonard, pointed out the difficulties in transferring leases to his family members in case something happened to him. Under current law, the leases would revert to the state. The process of trying to put his wife and son’s name on the lease has been, he said, impossible to navigate. DNR aquaculture manager Karl Roscher agreed it was cumbersome and apologized.
After the meeting, Cardin said he was optimistic that the problems would be resolved. The group, he said, had provided “half a dozen specific suggestions” to streamline the process.
“The attitude that Col. Chamberlayne has expressed from the beginning,” Cardin said, “is that he wants to make this work.”