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Oyster farmers seek quicker approval process

Bobby Leonard of Royal Oak looks over his tanks holding oyster spat.
Bobby Leonard of Royal Oak looks over his tanks holding oyster spat. (Timothy B. Wheeler / Baltimore Sun)

CAMBRIDGE — Maryland's fledgling oyster farming industry is seeing its growth hampered by government red tape and permitting delays, several aquaculture business owners told state and federal officials Tuesday.

At a session organized by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, oyster farmers said that despite some regulatory streamlining several years ago, they still often face waits of six months to as long as eight years in getting needed government approvals to lease water or bottom in Chesapeake Bay tributaries. They appealed to Cardin and state and federal officials for help.

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Johnny Shockley, a former waterman who co-owns an oyster farming operation on Hooper's Island, said regulatory hurdles are one of the main bottlenecks constricting his and others' ventures. If those hurdles could be removed or simplified, he said, aquaculture could be a "game changer" for boosting Maryland's seafood industry.

"The red tape … is a killer," complained Talbot County oyster farmer Bobby Leonard. "They bury me in paperwork."

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Leonard, a farmer and crab house owner, said he produced 2,000 bushels of bivalves in the past year on leases he has in various Choptank River tributaries, and hopes to double that yield next year. But he said he's encountered "unbelievable" delays just trying to transfer existing leases, let alone get new ones.

Cardin was joined in the meeting at the University of Maryland's Horn Point environmental laboratory by officials from the two agencies that must approve private aquaculture in public waters — the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We need to have an easier process," Cardin said, that can cope with the efforts of entrepreneurs trying to raise oysters in a bay where the iconic bivalves are struggling to rebound after centuries of overharvesting, habitat loss and disease.

Aquaculture in Maryland remains relatively small-scale compared with Virginia, but Cardin said its growth could be helped along by improving regulatory approaches.

The state has issued 150 new leases in the past year, with about 4,300 acres of bay bottom and water now set aside to grow oysters privately, according to Karl Roscher, the DNR's aquaculture manager. Another 105 leases are pending, he said.

Leases have been challenged by nearby property owners, who've objected that oyster floats on the water or cages on the bottom could interfere with boating or injure swimmers and pets. Some commercial watermen also have opposed leases, contending they would interfere with their crabbing or clamming activities.

Don Marsh has been trying since 2007 to get a lease to raise oysters in Chincoteague Bay near Ocean City, but said he has struggled to overcome opposition from waterfront property owners who've raised a host of objections to his planned operation.

"All it takes is one citizen to throw something out there and it's up to the grower to combat that," Marsh said. "No grower wants to destroy the environment ... but they are treated like a pariah."

He and other growers questioned why their lease applications are held up for months to assess potential impacts on endangered species such as Atlantic sturgeon and sea turtles. The oysters they're raising are helping to clean up the bay's water and provide habitat for fish, they pointed out.

"We're not here building a dam. We're not building a power plant," said Patrick Hudson, whose True Chesapeake Oyster Co. is raising bivalves in cages on the bottom of St. Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County. "We're putting oysters in the water. It's a good thing."

Hudson recounted how he had adjusted the boundaries of a five-acre lease his company was seeking to ease neighboring landowners' objections, only to be told by state regulators that the changes would mean his lease application would have to undergo a new review.

Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark J. Belton pledged to review the growers' complaints with his staff, though he pointed out that aquaculture had produced 35,000 bushels of oysters last year, roughly 10 percent of the wild harvest taken by watermen from public waters.

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"The aquaculture industry is taking off like a rocket and will continue to do so," he said.

The Army Corps also came in for criticism, as growers said their requests for federal permits to raise oysters in navigable waters often seemed to drag.

Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, who recently took over as commander of the Baltimore District of the Army Corps, acknowledged that his staff has been taking weeks longer to review oyster aquaculture permits than it should. He vowed to look for ways to streamline the process without denying the public the right to raise concerns about a particular operation's impacts on their property or on the environment.

"There should be a happy medium," Chamberlayne said, between letting opponents raise their objections, and giving oyster farmers quicker answers to their applications. But, he added, "it seems like there's a lot of room for improvement."

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