The commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources and each of the DNR division leaders did the two-for-Tuesday legislative committee work, appearing before both the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee and the Senate Natural Resources Committee during a busy Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta.
There was a good amount of talk about House Bill 208, which when enacted allowed DNR to raise license fees and go to work on projects across the department to enhance the experiences of Georgia residents and visitors.
Commissioner Mark Williams said to the House committee, “We have lived up to what we told you we would do, this past year and a half. You’ve got a scorecard in your folder … where we keep internally, and audit ourself, just to make sure we do what we’ve promised the hunters and fishermen we would do.
“As you can remember, we did probably a year and a half worth of town halls around the state. The first question we asked was, ‘Will you let us go up,’ and the second question we asked was, ‘What do you want us to do with the money?’ And that’s what we worked from. We feel we have been very responsive, but certainly if you’re hearing anything different in your districts, we need to know that. So, we’re very proud of the work we’ve done.”
Coastal Resources Division Director Doug Haymans told Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, that the agency has an eye on forthcoming oyster aquaculture legislation.
“First, wild harvesting of oysters is but a blip, and it will most likely remain but a blip,” Haymans said. “There’s a lot of work involved in the harvest of wild oysters, and the market is almost exclusively in backyard oyster roasts — it’s not the restaurant market for those, which is why aquaculture’s been brought up multiple times. My understanding is there is a bill that is nearing completion that we hope to be able to react to.
“I will tell you that, of all the fisheries that we regulate, shellfish is the most important in regard to human health. … It’s the only product that we harvest in the Southeast United States that’s consumed raw, and it’s one of the few that you can die from pretty quickly, for certain individuals. So we are very concerned about what legislation may say, and the fact that we were able to regulate that as we need to.
“Ultimately, we are the ones who are on the water with the regulation — the (state) Department of Ag(riculture) is on the hill once it gets to the plant. We need to work cooperatively together, and I told you earlier that we have two full-time individuals if this program goes the way I know you would like it to go — and several others — it’s going to take some effort.”
Williams also asked about the success of the state’s blue crab fishery, which Haymans said is going well, but won’t come back to historic levels.
“As far as blue crab, as you know we had the tremendous die-off back in ’99-2003 — we’ve never come back from that,” Haymans said. “We are, I think, at a steady state of about 3 million pounds a year or thereabouts. There’s about 128 licensed crabbers. About 80 of those are full-time. That number of full-time crabbers has remained the same for a couple of decades — it’s the folks who truly want to be in it. But we’ll never get back to the numbers we were in the ‘90s, because we don’t have any picking plants left.”
Rusty Garrison, director of the Wildlife Resources Division, quickly guided the House legislators through what H.B. 208 allowed WRD to accomplish, which is quite a list.
He said staff was able to construct new fishing piers, restroom and paving improvements, boat ramps, power and lighting to accommodate night fishing, infrastructure upgrades to hatcheries, 195 miles of new roads at wildlife management areas, improved access to 403 miles of existing roads at WMAs, added and/or improved 223 acres of waterfowl habitat on managed impoundments, added and/or improved 951 acres of mourning dove habitat on managed dove fields, enhanced technical assistance for wildlife management on private lands and enhanced shooting range opportunities on four ranges.