Marie Burns, chief of operations for the Army Corps' Baltimore District office, said her agency hopes to complete the permit in the coming weeks. One of the last remaining hurdles is another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been pressing to require that aquaculture operations be evaluated for their potential impact on endangered species like sea turtles and short-nosed sturgeon.
Such considerations seem extreme to some aquaculture proponents, who say there are no sea turtle or sturgeon protections written into Virginia's oyster-growing permits.
"This whole thing is like a can of worms," said Jon Farrington, the first to get approved under the state's revamped leasing law. He's in the process now of expanding a small aquaculture business, Johnny Oysterseed, that he has operated the past five years on the Patuxent River in Calvert County.
"It's easy to grow oysters," Farrington said. "What's hard is the nonsense and regulations that come out of the woodwork."
Roscher, the aquaculture coordinator, said he hopes the changes will shorten the time needed to process lease applications from six months — or in many cases longer — to no more than four months. But controversial proposals will still face delays, officials caution.
One of those comes from Don Marsh, who said he's been trying for more than two years to get permission to raise oysters on a 40-acre patch of bottom in Chincoteague Bay near his South Point home. Other waterfront homeowners have raised concerns about how his operation will spoil their view of the bay and that it may interfere with underwater grasses, fish, boating and other recreation.
Marsh said he has revised his lease application twice, and moved it farther offshore. But every time someone complains or raises a new question, he said, regulators ask him to answer it. Though Marsh had one public hearing on his plan, Roscher said another public information meeting is planned to air all the changes Marsh has made.
Marsh, 64, said he can afford to be patient because he is retired and only proposing a relatively small-scale farm, raising perhaps 200,000 oysters at first for sale to raw bars and restaurants.
Robinson, director of the Watermen's Trust, said he and his partner have invested $200,000 alone in building the marina and dock for the largest oyster-growing lease requested so far. But their bid also has been slowed by objections from local watermen, who have argued that the area where the partners want to raise oysters is producing them naturally again after years of being barren.
"We went from almost nothing to lots of oysters in that general area," said Naylor, the state's shellfish program director. The state has surveyed the bottom of Fishing Bay there and adjusted the lease boundaries to avoid natural oyster bars, Naylor said, reducing it to 814 acres. But that may not end the controversy, as watermen have complained that the state in its effort to promote aquaculture was depriving them of some of the best areas for harvesting wild oysters.
"We're trying to come up with some sort of a compromise where you can issue a lease and still have a fishery down there," Naylor said.
Despite the dispute, Robinson said he and his partner envision the Waterman's Trust as a boon for commercial watermen.
Robinson, 45, and a native of lower Dorchester, said he was a waterman for 20 years before getting into the management of a seafood business.
They hope to enlist about 30 watermen to work their oysters after they were planted, Robinson said, and then to give them a share of the harvest once grown to a marketable size.
Over on Hoopers Island, Johnny Shockley is among the fortunate handful of new oyster farmers who's gotten his lease and other permits and is busily preparing to plant his second batch of bivalves. The permitting process was "very frustrating but understandable," he said, since his application was one of the first the state had done under the new leasing law.
Now, he and his partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, owner of Rosedale Ice Co. in Baltimore, are planning to market their harvest as premium sustainable seafood to raw bars and upscale restaurants under the brand name Chesapeake Gold.
"What you're looking at here is around three million oysters," he said one day last week as he dipped his hands into a round fiberglass tank covered with what look like bits of shell. Each bit is a baby oyster 2 to 4 millimeters across.
Shockley, 48, is a third-generation waterman who's stopped crabbing to dive headlong into oyster farming. With the help of three seasonal workers, he's built his own tanks for rearing baby oysters at the dock until they're big enough to put out in the bay in cages. They're nearly finished fitting out a boat customized to hoist the 500-pound cages from the bottom and mechanically sort the oysters by size. And he's planning to start his own hatchery.
He said he has no regrets about leaving the traditional waterman's life to become an aquaculturist. He's hoping not merely to raise the bivalves for consumption, but to supply the equipment and eventually seed oysters to other oyster farmers.
"We intend to grow an industry in the state of Maryland," he said. And in the process, he added, "you're creating natural fish habitat, and you're cleaning the bay by adding millions of oysters to it."
In an earlier version, the story incorrectly identified the manner in which Chesapeake Fresh Oyster Co. plans to raise its oysters. The Sun regrets the error.