Lee Foskey, an oysterman with Sapelo Sea Farms in Townsend, holds a pair of blade-shapped, wild oysters off the coast of McIntosh County.

Having sent its version of the oyster mariculture bill to the state House by a 54-0 vote March 1, the state Senate gets a look at the lower chamber’s version — House Bill 501 — Monday. The bill was the last one added to the Senate Rules calendar for Monday, which generally dictates what bills get voted on by the entire body.

H.B. 501 passed out of the Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee on Wednesday following some, at times, testy testimony between the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, and state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, who led an effort in the months before the 2019 session to develop legislation legalizing oyster farming that would receive consensus support.

As it stands, H.B. 501 and Senate Bill 182 drew opposition from coastal environmental advocates and people who are seeking to get into oyster mariculture.

In a letter sent following the Wednesday hearing, Jones said all that stands in front of creating a robust oyster farming industry in the state is the right enabling legislation.

“Yet, growing the oyster industry in Georgia into its full potential will not happen if we continue with more of the same government-led bureaucratic nonsense as will be created in H.B. 501/S.B. 182,” Jones said. “We are better off with no new legislation, than legislation that further chokes this industry.”

State Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill.

The other bill on coastal conservation generating political heat, H.B. 445 — the lead sponsor of which is state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island — awaits a hearing in Senate Natural Resources. It passed out of the House by a 113-54 vote March 5, but those opposing the bill say it imprudently shrinks the jurisdictional area under the Shore Protection Act and unnecessarily eliminates regulatory oversight for “minor activity.” Typically, minor activity encompasses plans like gardening work by St. Simons Island oceanfront property owners.

There’s also a special carve-out in the bill that would exempt the Sea Island spit from the SPA. In a kind of irony, the SPA exists, at its most basic, to ensure sand moves around the Georgia coast the way nature intended. The construction of the new groin on the spit is to make sure sand doesn’t move like nature intended, but builds up the beach for planned development.

The possibility exists for another area of the coast to come under the specifications of that area of H.B. 445, but as it stands now, it only applies to the Sea Island spit. Hogan said March 5 that in the past, the Sea Island Company spent a considerable amount of its own money to renourish the beach there, only to watch the sand accumulate further south on St. Simons Island.

Senate Natural Resources has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

While a House Rules calendar for Monday doesn’t exist yet, S.B. 72 has a good chance of being on it. The House Rules Committee met Wednesday and heard from Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, who presented it. The bill makes some modifications to state hunting laws.

“It allows the use of airguns and airbows for hunting in our state,” Harper said. “It modifies various seasons and bag limits under the game code. It changes the term conservation ranger to game warden throughout the entirety of the code. It modifies the language in regard to baiting of feral hogs, to bring it more in line with the deer code. And, there was an amendment on the floor dealing with suppressors, to open up the use of suppressors in our state without the prohibitions that were in the code, for hunting purposes.”

Almost as an afterthought, the Senate committee approved an amendment to the bill naming the shoal bass as the official state riverine fish. State Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, introduced a bill in the House this year that would do the same, but it didn’t make it out of committee, so the senators inserted that language at the end of S.B. 72.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, had Harper return to the committee Thursday and confirm that the state Department of Natural Resources was OK with the bill’s language as it stands now. S.B. 72 was not put on the Thursday calendar, but Powell said the committee would meet Monday and decide the calendars for Monday and the next legislative day.

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