Native oysters are a vital part of the Chesapeake ecosystem as well as our economy and our culture. We have been strong supporters of efforts to restore this essential species, and we appreciate the work that the Corps of Engineers has done in this regard.
Oyster aquaculture holds great promise for restoring the fishery while also improving water quality and providing essential habitat for other species. The Corps has proposed an Oyster Aquaculture Regional General Permit and will be accepting public comments until March 15. We encourage the Corps to continue this process with the goal of finalizing the General Permit for use by May 1, 2011. This timing will allow those interested in pursuing a General Permit to do so with sufficient time to begin their operations this growing season. Similarly, we request that the Corps continue to process existing individual permit applications with all deliberate speed with the goal of issuing permits to all current individual applicants by May 1, 2011, provided they meet appropriate conditions.
We believe that oyster aquaculture has the potential to yield numerous benefits in the Maryland portions of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. We encourage you to move forward with your regulatory process in a speedy but considered fashion. Numerous other Corps Districts have adopted General Permits for oyster aquaculture in other states, including the Norfolk District for the Virginia portions of the Chesapeake. We should be able to take advantage of their experiences to put in place a protective but user friendly permit system in short order.
Over the last decade, the Federal Government has made substantial investments in oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. The Corps led a robust inter-agency, multi-state study of the non-native oyster. That effort culminated in a Record of Decision for the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Among the key recommendations was a strong endorsement of using native oysters to achieve the goal of an economically sustainable fishery. To achieve that end, we must have a permitting program that supports a flourishing native oyster aquaculture industry.
Both the Corps and NOAA have spent considerable time and Federal funding in re-building oyster reefs and developing disease-resistant oysters. We are now ready to embark upon a new chapter in the oyster restoration effort. We call upon you to meet that challenge by quickly putting in place a General Permit that is flexible enough to accommodate almost all aquaculture operations and streamlined enough to encourage its use. Permits should be managed primarily through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, providing oyster farmers with a “one-stop shop” for all their permitting needs.
We look forward to working with you to continue the restoration of this key species and the overall recovery of the Chesapeake Bay. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can provide additional information about this issue or any of the other issues that are important to the mission of the Baltimore District.