Prospective oyster farmers in Maryland may be able to get their plans out of a mire of red tape and their bivalves into the water more quickly under permitting changes made by state and federal agencies.

Eyeing the success of oyster aquaculture in Virginia, the state has been actively promoting oyster farming in Maryland as an option to traditional wild harvests.

But people interested in getting into the business have found themselves stuck in red tape for up to a year, and sometimes even longer, as they tried to get needed approvals from various state and federal agencies.

That started to change July 1, as the state consolidated all of its oyster aquaculture permitting - which previously could involve as many as six state agencies - within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But applicants still needed to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District, which required a lengthy review for each application.

On Aug. 15, though, the Corps signed off on a new streamlined permit for Maryland oyster growers. Applicants will now be able to submit a joint federal-state application, which officials hope will result in permit decisions being made within four months.

The Corps' action won praise from Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin. The two Democrats had appealed for the Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to speed up the approval of the streamlined permit.

"I am relieved the aquaculture permit has finally been approved," Mikulski said. "A lack of urgency in the permit process left the lives and livelihoods of Maryland's watermen on hold over the last several months. This permit means jobs for Maryland's watermen."

The Corps' new "regional general permit" will be available for aquaculture projects of up to 50 acres placed directly on the water bottom; 5 acres of aquaculture cages on the bottom; and 3 acres for floating aquaculture projects. It covers activities such as shellfish seeding, rearing and cultivation as well as the installation and deployment of aquaculture structures including cages, floats, racks and trays.

Col. David Anderson, Baltimore District Engineer for the Corps, called the new permit system "a monumental action" that "demonstrates our commitment to being good stewards of the environment, while also bolstering the economy."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley praised the Corps for helping to cut the red tape. "Together, we can create jobs, grow our seafood industry and make a more sustainable future for the Chesapeake Bay and our native oyster," he said.

Although improved, Maryland's permitting process will still not be as simple as that in Virginia, where the Corps' Norfolk District agreed on a streamlined permit approval process with the state 17 years ago, allowing most aquaculture permits to be issued in 90 days.

In Maryland, there had been much less interest in aquaculture, so there was little pressure to change the permit system in the past.

But with the development of new, fast-growing oysters that thrive in aquaculture, oyster farming is booming in Virginia. A recent report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science showed that oyster farmers in the state sold a record 16.9 million oysters in 2010, up from 12.6 million the previous year - an increase of 34 percent. In 2005, just 800,000 oysters from aquaculture were sold in the state. The value of oysters raised in aquaculture in Virginia in 2010 was about $5 million.

In comparison, the value of oysters raised in Maryland aquaculture last year was about $1.5 million, according to the DNR.

As a result, interest in oyster farming has grown rapidly in Maryland, and the O'Malley administration has actively promoted it as an alternative to the traditional wild harvest of oysters.

Since September 2010, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has received 38 applications to lease nearly 1,600 acres. The majority of those are still in the review process.