Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources may soon change the way it issues permits for transporting shellfish over state lines.

Currently, oyster growers in Maryland need a shellfish transport permit to import seed or oyster larvae across state lines — even if that line is just a few miles away in Virginia. Maryland law requires the hatcheries supplying the seed to test each batch to make sure they’re free of the pathogens that cause MSX and Dermo, the two oyster diseases that have devastated populations in the last 50 years. The testing can take several weeks, and the “health certificate” is good for 30 days. That means if oyster growers need more seeds a couple of months later, they will have to endure the process again.

The regulation has been particularly burdensome in Maryland, which boasts dozens of oyster aquaculture businesses, but not private hatcheries that supply the smallest and least expensive seed oysters. A few companies are nurseries, so they sell larger seeds within Maryland, but they have to buy their initial seeds out of state. Much of that seed comes from Virginia. One hatchery, Oyster Seed Holdings in Gywnn’s Island, VA, supplies about 50 percent of all the growers in the Chesapeake Bay.

In May, the Aquaculture Coordinating Council threw its support behind a proposal from Ryan Carnegie, a research associate professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who specializes in shellfish pathology. Carnegie is proposing to assemble a group of leading pathologists to create a new system for certifying the shellfish that would both minimize disease and lessen regulatory burdens on growers. The new system could work several different ways, Carnegie said, but one idea is to divide the Chesapeake into zones, test oysters raised there, and allow any other grower in the zone to import that seed without a permit.

The issue is most acute now in Maryland, Carnegie said, but it’s sure to appear elsewhere. Delaware is beginning an aquaculture leasing program, and New Jersey is looking into it as well. States like Virginia, which has five hatcheries within its borders and also operates under a seamless joint permit arrangement with the Army Corps of Engineers for leasing bottom, have an advantage over those that have no hatcheries and require import permits.

The idea for the new system came from hatcheries that have contracted with Carnegie’s lab to test for diseases and that have routinely come up clean. Some of them had questioned the expense and delay imposed by the testing and wondered if there was a better way.

“Oyster (aquaculture) growth in Virginia has been explosive. There’s got to be a lot of certifications. We have very few providers of it. We can see a stress point in the system,” Carnegie said. “Having to wait for two weeks — that detracts from the ability of a business to nimbly respond to opportunities to move their product.”

Because of the burdens, Carnegie worries that growers will bypass the tests and import shellfish illegally through off-the-books purchases. He said such purchases are happening now, but wasn’t sure how frequently.

“We don’t want people to be doing things without approvals,” he said. “We want it to be easy enough and reasonable enough so that people are encouraged to go through the proper channels.”

Karl Roscher, aquaculture manager for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said Carnegie’s proposal “would definitely help streamline” shellfish imports.

Carnegie is hoping that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant Aquaculture Research Program will fund his research. If it does, he expects the group will start its work in September.