VA, MD working to reduce hurdles to oyster aquaculture
Virginia Senate tries to protect shellfish operations under Right to Farm Act while Maryland agreement with feds will reduce time to secure permits
By Rona Kobell
Maryland, Virginia and the federal government are taking steps to expand aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay, a move that could surprise some coastal residents who may not be used to living next to shellfish farms.
Virginia's Senate recently passed a law protecting aquaculture under the Right to Farm Act and prohibiting local zoning officials from interfering in permitting decisions. The law also allows aquaculture in any place that is zoned for agriculture and already has a pier. But the bill stalled in the House of Delegates. It is expected to come back next year after further study.
Maryland, for its part, has reached an agreement with federal agencies to remove a stumbling block in getting aquaculture off the ground in its part of the Chesapeake. It hopes to have a general permit in place with the Army Corps of Engineers by May. The change means that people who want to get into oyster farming will no longer have to wait several months or longer for the Corps to sign off on their plan. Maryland lawmakers are also introducing legislation to put the entire permitting process under the Department of Natural Resources; currently, half a dozen state agencies have a hand in the permitting process, which causes delays and frustrates many applicants.
While the states are working out their aquaculture issues, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a draft nine-point plan to encourage aquaculture, set nationwide standards for protecting habitat while raising sustainable seafood, and act as a facilitator between federal agencies to help permit seekers avoid delays like the ones they have encountered in Maryland.
The moves are part of a nationwide recognition that aquaculture is a crucial part of the U.S. economy as well as a way to safeguard the nation's waterways. About 84 percent of the seafood Americans consume is from abroad; half of that is from aquaculture. Yet within our own country, we are growing only about 5 percent of the seafood we consume, said Larry Robinson, NOAA's assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
"We have to do better than that," Robinson said.
It's not clear what specifics will be included in NOAA's final plan. A public comment period on the policy runs until April 9, and the agency hopes to have a final policy out by the end of the year.
The changes in Virginia will likely come sooner, and be far more dramatic. Virginia has been home to oyster farms for more than 100 years. The state has more than 100,000 acres of Bay bottom under lease, most of them in rural areas in the Northern Neck and Middle Neck peninsulas as well as the Eastern Shore, where people have worked the water all their lives. While there has long been a process where residents could object to aquaculture in their neighborhood, few ever did.
But the development of an oyster tailor-made for aquaculture changed all that. The sterile animal, which oyster geneticist Standish Allen developed at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, grows to market size in about one year. In the wild, it would take three years to reach the same size. Since Allen made the brood stock available about five years ago, oyster farms have flourished in Virginia.
Their success caught the eye of real estate developer Greg Garrett, who owns a waterfront home in York County. He asked Sen. Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment to introduce a bill that would allow him to put in a large-scale aquaculture operation located about 40 feet from his neighbor with no restrictions. Large-scale, in this case, amounted to 1,500 floats, with an operation from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission quickly objected, arguing that the bill stripped Virginians of their voice in their own affairs and took away a regulatory authority that had worked well for decades.
"What we have had in Virginia has been a way to regulate aquaculture in a way that promotes and encourages it, but also reins it in. This bill would have taken away the reins," said VMRC communications manager John M.R. Bull. "You would take away people's voice. That would have been a recipe for disaster."
In response, Norment changed the bill. In the version that passed the Senate, aquaculture is protected under the Virginia Right to Farm Act, and it can go on in areas zoned for agriculture. Oyster farmers allowed to do aquaculture can move their crops across their private, residential piers, something they weren't allowed to do before because it was a commercial operation and restricted on residential property. Norment kept the provision that local zoning officials have no say in aquaculture operations, giving the authority to the VMRC - much to the consternation of county supervisors. Such objections were part of the reason the House tabled the bill.
Virginia Seafood Council President A.J. Erskine didn't have a problem with the bill that passed.
"I was in favor of them expanding the definition of agriculture to include aquaculture," he said. "I was not in favor of them taking any authority away from the VMRC."
Erskine raises oysters for Bevans Oyster Co. and Cowart Seafood Co., two firms that have been in the rural Northern Neck for several decades. But Bull expects that the new applicants will fall into a different category: people new to oysters, and even new to the area, who see opportunity.
"I think people are realizing there's money to be made. And, to a degree, I think it's sinking in to the public that the more oysters in the water, the better. So this is a business you can feel good about," Bull said. "I think you could classify what we're going through here as growing pains. We have the infrastructure, we have the processes, the industry has grown. Now the question is not should we do it, but how do we do it responsibly?"
Maryland is pinning its hopes on aquaculture enterprise zones and awaiting approval from various agencies to establish them. In the meantime, the state has worked to sort out its difficulties with the Corps. In Virginia, aquafarmers fall under a general permit, while in Maryland they have been falling under the more cumbersome individual permit. General permit approval takes three months; individual permit approval can take more than a year.
On Feb. 16, the Army Corps announced its intention to seek a general permit for Maryland aquaculture. The public comment period on the proposal lasts until March 15.
Maryland is also putting the permitting process under one state agency with the intent of cutting delays. Karl Roscher, who had been coordinating aquaculture while at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, will move to the Department of Natural Resources and continue his work.
While getting permits in Maryland should be easier after May 1, DNR assistant secretary Frank Dawson said he's not sure what will happen to the applicants already in the pipeline. He is hoping to expedite their applications.
Some observers have privately questioned whether Maryland jumped into aquaculture before it was ready. The state changed its laws just two years ago; before that, aquaculture was prohibited in many counties and certainly not encouraged even where it was allowed.
Dawson acknowledged he didn't think it would be as hard as it has been to jump-start the industry.
"I think we didn't fully understand the opportunities that existed for streamlining the process," he said. "The order of magnitude of the delays was something that surprised us."
He's hopeful those delays are a thing of the past.
"If you look back over from the time when the bill got passed, to the end of this calendar year, you're going to see a dramatic change in the landscape."
Read the entire story in the Chesapeake Bay Journal....