DNR chief: Oyster farming having a shell of a good start

In his recent article about oyster farming ("State's oyster farmers snagged on red tape," June 20), Tim Wheeler left out several important facts regarding the issuance of aquaculture leases. Had they been included, perhaps the headline of the article might have been, "Despite necessary start-up and transition delays, oyster farming off to a good start."

Lease issuance is a two-part process between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Maryland. While the state may be able to promptly approve an application, few applicants have the time or money to generate multiple maps and perform complex geographical reviews as required by the Corps. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has committed substantial additional resources, including staff, to complete the Corps requirements on behalf of applicants.

Of 41 outstanding bottom lease applications, 27 have been processed and are pending with the Corps; 6 are in the final stages of processing. Agency staff are in weekly contact with the Corps to review all pending permits and concerns.

There are significant controversies surrounding some of the remaining leases. In one case referenced by Mr. Wheeler, local watermen are concerned they will lose access to fishing grounds. In another, the application is complicated by outstanding problems with the previous lease. Because these resources are part of the public trust, any commercial, recreational, navigational or private property concerns must be addressed before moving forward.

Intense efforts are underway to streamline both the state and federal permitting processes. Beginning July 1, state leases will be issued solely by DNR and will no longer require processing by multiple agencies. A Regional General Permit that will allow leases to be approved much more quickly is pending final comment from the National Marine Fisheries Service. DNR is developing a web-based tool to help applicants do their own preliminary screening.

While these efforts do take time, much progress has been made in establishing and streamlining this process. Under the leadership of Gov. Martin O'Malley, we remain committed to growing a thriving aquaculture industry that will provide extraordinary environmental and economic benefits to all Marylanders.

John R. Griffin,Annapolis

The writer is secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

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