Maryland oyster farmers have long said that growing the shellfish is the easy part of their job. The hard part: all of the bureaucratic red tape they have to wade through to obtain their leases in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.So is this the Federal government fault? Partly, but not entirely. Maryland has more onerous regulations than Virginia.
The stories are legendary. Calvert County oyster farmer Jon Farrington waited more than a year for a permit to grow oysters. It would have taken the same amount of time, he said, had he decided to build an oil derrick. Patrick Hudson, who farms oysters about 30 miles south of Farrington in St. Mary’s County, had to completely reapply for his farm’s leases, even though they had already been used by the oyster farmer from whom he took over the oyster grounds. The state and the federal government had to come and remeasure and resurvey all of the ground, costing him close to two years of growing time. Perhaps no one has endured more oyster bureaucracy than Donald Marsh, a former banker who has been trying to grow oysters in Chincoteague Bay since 2007. Marsh is still negotiating his permit with the Corps.
Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin Cardin invited a few oyster farmers to Horn Point Laboratory near Cambridge for a discussion on how he could help ease those permitting problems. Sitting next to him was the man whom many oyster farmers and policy makers hope will make it happen: Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, the new commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore district.
Shockley has long urged regulators to emulate the process in Virginia, where the Corps and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission work closely and seamlessly. A Virginia oyster farmer generally receives his permit in three months. In Maryland, it rarely takes less than six months, oyster farmers say, and often takes closer to two years.And why is that? Could an oyster farmer sue for lack of equal treatment by the Feds?
In Virginia, the Corps doesn’t weigh in unless there’s a problem, whereas in Maryland, the agency has its own approval process. One example of a delay: Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources will hold a public meeting on a lease as part of the agency’s due diligence. Two months later, the Corps will hold a public meeting for the same reason.
When asked for specific examples of the delays, Hudson pointed to a two-month waiting period for a study to be conducted on sea turtles and sturgeon. Shockley pointed out that, in a lifetime of working the Chesapeake, he rarely saw either. And crab pots, which are far more likely to entangle such creatures, require no such studies before watermen deploy them in the Bay.I've seen exactly one live sea turtle in the bay, and zero sturgeon. When sturgeon are caught, it's generally in pound nets, which are far more damaging to a large number of bay critters than oyster farms.