Maryland oyster farmers have formed an association to lobby for their interests in Annapolis, ease permitting red tape and educate the public about the benefits of growing bivalves.

The Maryland Shellfish Growers Association became incorporated this spring. Virginia has a similar association. There is also a regional association, the East Coast Shellfish Growers’ Association that looks out for aquaculturists’ interests in Washington, DC, and another for Southern Maryland oyster growers.

Maryland oyster farmers had discussed organizing their own association for a couple of years and had been encouraged by state officials who have been promoting aquaculture. The growers acted after the 2015 legislative session, when watermen backed a bill that would have “paralyzed” the oyster-permitting process,” according to Johnny Shockley, the new group’s president.

That bill, House Bill 419, would have required the Department of Natural Resources to consider “certain potential user conflicts in determining the location of submerged land aquaculture leases in the Chesapeake Bay and water column aquaculture leases in the waters of the state; requiring the department to mitigate and minimize the effects of the proposed location of certain aquaculture leasing areas on other users if the department determines that conflicts exist.”

In practice, Shockley and others said that meant anyone who opposed an oyster farm would have an upper hand, as the farm would be in the position of “mitigating and minimizing.” That might mean moving to an inferior location, agreeing to not work the lease on certain days or times, or having to give up on it entirely.

“House Bill 419 tried to put us out of business. It made us subordinate to every other user in the state,” said J. D. Blackwell, a Southern Maryland native who grows oysters in St. Mary’s County for his company, 38 North. “The attack of 419 made us realize that we had to bring the troops together. We realized that watermen have a voice for their concerns, but the aquaculture industry didn’t have a voice.”

Del. Jay Jacobs, of the Rock Hall area, said he had introduced 419 at the request of several watermen, including Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert T. Brown. Brown holds several leases and raises oysters in Southern Maryland, but he has also expressed concern about conflicts with clammers over bottom area.

The DNR has a rigorous process for granting leases, and it doesn’t allow them in priority fishing areas for oysters. But oyster farmers still find themselves in conflicts with watermen and hunters over access to shorelines. Many of these conflicts have been resolved, but a few have dragged on for years in the court system. Steve Gordon, a Public Landing oyster grower, spent three years in court attempting to obtain his lease when two neighbors objected. Don Marsh, who has been trying to raise oysters in the Coastal Bays, just got a favorable court decision after nearly five years of fighting his neighbors.

Blackwell and Shockley said that they hope their group, which could grow to include more than a dozen companies, will guard against another 419-style bill. But they also hope they can educate homeowners, hunters and fishermen about the benefits of aquaculture.

Oysters filter the water. They are also magnets for biodiversity. Floats and cages filled with oysters resemble oyster reefs as they teem with grass shrimp, greenery and small fish that gravitate to the clean water.

The pair also hope the association will help with the fight to streamline permitting. Maryland oyster farmers still need permission from the Army Corps of Engineers, which conducts its own investigation into every application and can delay the process by as much as a year. Virginia’s Army Corps, in contrast, has agreed to work under a general permit application with the state and does not get involved in permitting decisions unless the state alerts the Corps to a problem. As a result, Virginia’s process takes about three months. Maryland’s is six months, but only when everything goes exactly as planned. Many oyster farmers say it can take more than a year.

Donald Webster, a University of Maryland extension specialist who has been working on bringing aquaculture to Maryland for nearly four decades, said he is thrilled that Shockley and Blackwell have come together to form the group.

“The industry needs representation, and a statewide association would be an excellent way to get that,” he said. “It would help with representation on committees, in the legislature and to advance public knowledge about this very green and beneficial industry.”