Oyster farming off to a slow start in Maryland

Officials vow to cut through red tape to boost aquaculture

June 20, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

CROCHERON — — The dock built to hold water-filled tanks of baby oysters stands empty. The new marina for landing fully grown bivalves is being used for now by some crabbers.

Encouraged by a new state policy to boost private oyster farming, Jay Robinson and Ryan Bergey applied last fall to lease upward of 1,000 acres in Fishing Bay in southern Dorchester County. They planned to "plant" 100 million hatchery-spawned oysters on the bottom there this year and raise them for sale to restaurants and seafood wholesalers.

Nine months later, Robinson and Bergey are still waiting for the green light to launch their aquaculture business, named the Waterman's Trust.

"We still hope to be able to salvage this season," Robinson says. But he says with only three months left, their aim now is to get maybe a third of the oysters planted this year that they had wanted to.

The state's push to revive Maryland's faded oyster industry through aquaculture has prompted dozens of watermen, seafood dealers and entrepreneurially-minded landlubbers to try their hand. Yet despite promises to streamline what had long been recognized as a cumbersome approval process, most of those new ventures have yet to start, tangled in state and federal red tape.

Of 26 applications reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources since the fall for new leases to grow oysters on the bottom of either the Chesapeake Bay or the state's coastal bays, only one has been issued. Of eight other leases applied for raising bivalves in floating trays or sacks off the bottom, six have been okayed. And there are seven off-bottom lease applications still awaiting approval that were submitted before last fall, according to Karl Roscher, aquaculture coordinator in the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"It's really been so frustrating," said Patrick Hudson, a 25-year-old paralegal from Baltimore who's teamed up with a fisherman, business executives and members of his family to try raising oysters in Southern Maryland under the brand name Chesapeake Fresh.

Their new firm chose St. Jerome's Creek in St. Mary's County to raise oysters in cages on the bottom , at a site where another oyster grower had operated for years. Hudson said he and his partners thought they'd be in business by April. They've been paying rent on shore facilities since then, but are beginning now to wonder if they'll be able to put any oysters in the water there this year.

"We're taking a loan from the bank, trying to buy seed [oysters] and equipment and get oysters in the water," Hudson said. "It's like they don't know that people's livelihoods depend on getting these permits."

The state opened thousands of acres of bay and river bottom to leasing for aquaculture last year. It was part of a two-pronged initiative to restore the Chesapeake's depleted oyster population while also reviving the shrunken industry that had relied for centuries on harvesting wild-caught shellfish.

The bay's oyster population, ravaged by diseases, has lingered at one or two percent of historic levels since the 1990s, and natural reefs or bars where oysters grow have declined by 80 percent. The number of harvesters has dwindled as well by 75 percent, while oyster-processing companies dropped from 58 in the 1970s to just eight today.

Proponents argue that oysters raised privately can be profitable and also help restore the bay. The bivalves are prolific filter feeders, feasting on algae that cloud the water.

To help budding aquaculturists, the state has offered more than $2 million in subsidized loans and provided training and technical help.

But frustrated oyster farmers say their startups have been slowed by having their plans reviewed by three state agencies, and then by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Until recently, only the state had regulated raising oysters on the bottom, a practice pursued by some Marylanders for decades. The Corps had required federal permits for raising oysters in the water, either in floating trays or in sacks suspended from the surface. But lately the federal agency, which is charged with regulating activity in wetlands and waterways, has begun requiring bottom oyster growers to get a federal permit as well.

Oyster farmers in Virginia have much less trouble and delay getting permits, their Maryland counterparts say. But that state has a much stronger tradition of aquaculture than Maryland's, and the Army Corps regulators in the Norfolk District office moved years ago to streamline its review of those operations.

Officials acknowledge that the permitting process in Maryland's portion of the bay has been complicated and balky, though they say they're on the verge of simplifying and speeding it up.

"It's fair to say it's not going as quickly as we would like it to," said Michael Naylor, chief of DNR's shellfish program, who noted that two more bottom leases are on the verge of receiving federal approval. "But please consider it's a very new program. We had to feel our way through this new process."

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