Responding to complaints from waterfront homeowners, officials in St. Mary’s County, MD, voted Tuesday to impose a six-month moratorium on using commercial docks to work any new state-issued aquaculture leases that would raise oysters in cages or floats.Oysters grow in rows of floating cages at a site JD Blackwell leases along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in St. Mary’s County, MD. Blackwell said that most of his oysters are raised in cages resting on the bottom, unseen at the water’s surface but for markers to identify the submerged equipment for boaters. (Dave Harp)

With just three of its five members present, the Southern Maryland county’s board of commissioners adopted the moratorium by a vote of 2–1, after shortening its duration from 18 months to 180 days. One member was absent, while another recused himself from the session because he owns a waterfront home and has objected to an aquaculture lease applied for off his shoreline.

The county’s action drew criticism from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and from a local oyster farmer, who noted that watermen have increasingly turned to aquaculture as an alternative or supplement to fickle wild harvests.

“Right at the time when watermen need a real option, we’re about to make it harder for them,” said J.D. Blackwell, owner of 38North Oysters in St. Mary’s County.

St. Mary’s has been one of Maryland’s hotbeds for oyster farming since the state moved in 2010 to expand aquaculture. There have been 99 leases issued there, covering nearly 900 acres of water. About one-fourth of those leases authorize the use of cages on the bottom or floats on the surface, while the rest only permit growing oysters on loose shell on the bottom, much as they do in the wild.

County officials moved in July to restrict dock access for new cage or float aquaculture leases after receiving complaints from waterfront property owners, who contended that the growing number of such operations interferes with their ability to boat, swim or hunt in the waters off their property.

Randy Guy, president of the county commissioners, said county officials acted out of frustration with the state Department of Natural Resources, which has sole say in deciding where or whether to issue aquaculture leases. The state’s leasing law does not give landowners or local officials any leverage in siting leases, as county officials want.

“We have to do something to force the hand of DNR,” Guy said. The ordinance directs county staff to study how the growing number of aquaculture enterprises fits in with the county’s long-range development plan and to come up with potential changes to the zoning code that might tighten control over their siting.

County officials proposed the moratorium at a hearing in August, and then tabled it after the DNR convened an informal workgroup to try to resolve conflicts and concerns over aquaculture leasing. At that hearing, oyster farmers noted that the county’s economic development plan calls for encouraging their industry, and they warned that a moratorium would send a message that they weren’t wanted.

The commissioners extended the public comment period on their legislation until Dec. 4. In all, the county received 353 comments in favor, and only 27 against it. Commissioner Mike Hewitt noted the lopsided comment tally supporting the moratorium and took issue with critics who said waterfront homeowners’ complaints were another form of NIMBYism, or “not in my backyard.”

Landowners who spoke at the public hearing, Hewitt recalled, complained about losing longstanding, unbounded recreational access to the water off their shore.

Guy, who was tapped to serve on the DNR workgroup, said it proved unreceptive to giving more local say in how or where the state issues aquaculture leases. Guy’s seat on the DNR workgroup has been filled at times by Todd Morgan, the county commissioner who recused himself from the moratorium deliberations in August.

Eric Colvin, a newly elected commissioner, said he would support the moratorium but wanted it shortened. He said six months should be enough to give the county’s legislative delegation time to seek state-level changes during the upcoming General Assembly session, which runs from January to March.

“We’re not opposed to aquaculture,” Colvin said. “There needs to be a change at the state level. This ordinance is an attempt to encourage the state to move along with that.”

Hewitt supported the moratorium but voted against Colvin’s amendment because he said he wanted to keep it at 18 months. The county’s legislative delegation is mostly new, he explained, and he wanted to give them two annual Assembly sessions to get a new law passed.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Bay Foundation, said the Annapolis-based environmental group was “extremely disappointed” by the county’s action to restrict any new aquaculture operations.

“This ordinance will likely have a chilling effect on the growing aquaculture industry in Maryland and denies the citizens of St. Mary’s County the water quality benefits that these sustainable businesses provide,” Prost said. The foundation is spearheading a campaign to put 10 billion oysters in the Bay, largely for their ecological value of filtering pollutants out of the water and providing habitat for fish and other marine creatures.

With a recently completed DNR stock assessment showing the Bay’s oyster population at half of its 1999 abundance, Prost said, “we should be encouraging practices that put more oysters in the Bay, not limiting them.”