Long-awaited "streamlining" of the tangled state and federal red tape Maryland watermen must navigate for permission to establish oyster farming operations finally took effect Monday.
Now, instead of seeking approvals from three separate state agencies and then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, watermen can file a single, joint state-federal application with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
While the Corps still must issue a separate approval, it has agreed to a simplified "Regional General Permit" that federal officials say should shorten the process.
In all, a permit process that until now could take six to 12 months at both the state and federal levels, is now expected to take no more than four months, DNR officials said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley thanked the Corps for its cooperation. "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.
Maryland watermen had complained that, despite new state policies to expand the bay acreage available for aquaculture leases, their ventures have been hobbled by the complex permitting process and slow action by state and federal regulators.
The delays prevented them from getting oysters and structures into the water this spring, they said, despite action by the General Assembly last winter to realign the duties of the state agencies. Some watermen took out loans, but had to wait before buying oyster seed and equipment and getting them into the water.
Michael Naylor, chief of DNR's shellfish program, told The Baltimore Sun in mid-June that the permitting reform was "not going as quickly as we would like it to. But please consider it's a very new program. We had to feel our way through this new process."
On July 1, the date set by the General Assembly, the state officially consolidated all state aquaculture permitting — once shared by the DNR, the Department of the Environment and the Board of Public Works — within the DNR.
And on Monday, the Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District began processing the new Regional General Permits, as the Norfolk District has for years. They are now available in Maryland for projects of up to 50 acres if the oysters are placed directly on the bay bottom; five acres for oyster cages on the bottom, or three acres for floating cages.
The operations can include shellfish seeding, rearing and cultivation, as well as the installation of cages, floats racks and trays, the Corps said.
Karl Roscher, assistant director of the DNR's Fisheries Service, said the state's new permitting process should take less than 120 days.
"There could be cases that extend beyond that," he said, if a lease application raises sufficient public concern that it has to be sent through public hearings.
The federal approvals should require just 60 days and should now be able to proceed simultaneously with the state reviews.
Currently, Roscher said, there are 10 permit applications still in state review. Twenty-seven others have been approved at the state level and sent on to the Corps of Engineers for federal approvals.
A little over half of those would satisfy the requirements for permitting under the expedited regional general permit, Roscher said.