EASTON — Oyster aquaculture is a growing industry in Maryland. Some are stepping away from the traditional method of harvesting oysters and embracing this relatively new — in the grand scheme of Maryland’s oyster fishery — method.
While Maryland officials want the aquaculture industry to grow, the process to get an aquaculture company established can be long and arduous, as some said at the roundtable Tuesday.
Those issues were expressed to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Baltimore District Commander Edward P. Chamberlayne, local state representatives and other partners of Maryland’s oyster restoration at an oyster aquaculture roundtable discussion on Tuesday at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory.
After a tour of the nation’s premier oyster hatchery, Horn Point Laboratory, Cardin and others sat down with local oyster farmers to discuss issues surrounding the aquaculture industry.
Much of the discussion was spent on the difficulties entering the industry. It could take years for an oyster farmer to get the appropriate leases and permits to start their aquaculture business. Just ask Don Marsh, who has been stuck in the process since 2007.
Marsh said DNR grants leases for bottom to oyster growers and the USACE grants permits. He got his lease about a year and a half ago, but the permit has been hung up for “anything that you think could possible be a problem that somebody could think of.”
Marsh said that, if someone has a complaint about a prospective oyster aquaculture operation, they submit the complaint and the applicant sometimes has to respond to it. For instance, Marsh was asked to do a study on the impact his operation would have on historic homes and architecture.
“It’s in the water,” Marsh said, hinting that there would be no impact whatsoever. “It gets that ridiculous. It’s basically a public process that never ends.”
Patrick Hudson, with True Chesapeake Oyster Company in southern Maryland, also stressed the challenge of the public hearing process in acquiring leases and permits.
Conflicts of interest can arise between oyster growers and where they want to set up shop and the neighbors around them, Hudson said, adding that he tries to talk to his neighbors and create a business that can coincide with his neighbors’ interests.
He said one of his biggest issues is that there are two public notices that go out, which he said gives people an opportunity to “drum up more opposition” to any particular project.
“I’m dealing with a community where I’m trying to put out fires when the DNR issues a public notice, and people go, ‘Oh, what’s going on with this and that,’” Hudson said. “Then we talk to them and show what we’re trying to do … and you see it’s really not that bad and we really blend into the community quite well, and most people come around, and then a month later there’s another public notice and we’ve got the same ball game.”
While the public hearing process is an important aspect to it, and while some people might have legitimate claims to be a part of the process when oyster aquaculture operations draw up their coordinates in the water, “the public is not always supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Hudson said, “Mainly because they don’t understand it and they need some education.”
The discussion Tuesday also surrounded why the process takes so long, eventually leading Cardin and others calling for a more streamlined process and DNR and the USACE working together to find efficiencies in both their respective processes so that maybe they could push through applications quicker and not duplicate each other’s process in any way.
Marsh said the fundamental issue in his permitting process has been the complexity of the work “as understood by the people who are performing it for the Army Corps is far, far greater in terms of complexity and quantity than their capacity to do it.”
Chamberlayne said that the USACE is more of a business than people might realize. It does $1.5 billion in construction each year, he said, and if it gets more business, then it can hire more people. But right now there’s a set labor force, and no matter how many applications it gets, the labor force can’t be changed, Chamberlayne said.
How Bobby Leonard, an aquaculturist, put it, speaking about DNR, “They’ve created so much paperwork that their office can’t address it.”
Leonard suggested that the state look at how it deals with lease transfers, speaking directly to Belton. Say, for example, he’d like to sell his existing leased bottom to someone, “It’s an ungodly long, drawn-out process.”
“Have you looked at how long it takes to transfer a lease? It’s unbelievable how long it takes,” Leonard said. “I could buy a farm in Talbot County much quicker than I could sell you 3 acres of my leased bottom.”
“You’re trying to promote aquaculture, but it’s really going the other way,” he said.
Karl Roscher, who handles the aquaculture program for DNR, said his office has been working with Leonard on his lease transfers, and that it’s trying to take steps to streamline the process.
There are also things in the process that some pointed to as being unnecessary.
For example, Hudson said he got a phone call the other day that there needs to be a study on the effects on sturgeon and sea turtles for a plot of bottom he’s trying to acquire.
“I thought it was a joke. It was serious,” he said, adding that sea turtles are very rare in his part of the Chesapeake Bay.
Johnny Shockley, of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, said that when he was a crabber before starting his aquaculture company five years ago, he didn’t have to go through the same steps as a commercial watermen to put gear in the water to catch crabs that would more likely create issues with sturgeons and sea turtles “than the simple things that we’re doing with the oyster aquaculture programs.”
“It creates problems for the staff, for the people that are working for you guys, to try to deal with these issues, these mandates that they have to deal with on a daily (basis),” Shockley said.
The roundtable on Tuesday was a big deal for Shockley, who is a lifelong waterman, he said.
“Based on my lifetime experience and frustrations of where this (seafood) industry was going as a whole, I saw a tremendous opportunity around oyster aquaculture,” he said.
It’s important to remembers the oyster fishery’s history, Shockley said. By the turn of the 20th century, “We had pretty much fished down about 50 percent of the stocks, and that’s where the decline and tragedy began.”
Shockley said the oyster fishery was wiped out based on economic factors, people trying to make money. But what must be figured out is how to use those same economics and apply them in a positive way to get the desired reaction and re-establish the oyster as the keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
“The way that we actually stabilize this entire seafood industry is by re-establishing the oyster as the foundation of our entire industry, and that’s through aquaculture,” Shockley said.
At the end of the discussion, Cardin said that many of the issues brought up can be resolved through the regulatory process, but some are statute changes that require the attention of federal or state representatives.
“This field is relatively new, oyster aquaculture. The state has been pretty aggressive in promoting it, but it’s not the traditional way in which we’ve dealt with oysters in the past, and therefore there’s rough edges,” Cardin said.
He said federal and state agencies must work together to address the issues and use aquaculture as an economic prop for Maryland and help the environment at the same time.
“We can do all that in a more streamlined way and a more common sense way, recognizing that the public interest is very important, but focus the public interest in a way that is much more beneficial than just delay, delay, delay,” Cardin said.
Cardin said that, while the sturgeon and sea turtle conservation are important environmental objectives, it shouldn’t be used by a neighbor of a perspective aquaculture company to delay the process of the company being established.