As the state Senate legislation on shellfish aquaculture received lightning-fast consideration in the upper chamber, its companion in the state House wasn’t much slower.

State Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, took over as lead on the project from state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, and introduced House Bill 501 Tuesday. By Thursday, it was up for a hearing and vote before the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee.

“What we are trying to do here, many of you may be aware we have a $1.7 million oyster and clam industry in Georgia — wild, Georgia-grown oysters and clams, predominantly clams,” Petrea said. “But, we are trying to do something that other states have done and that we believe could be great for Georgia and for some of our coastal counties, and that is to provide for the mariculture, the farming, if you will, of oysters in Georgia.”

He explained to the committee that wild clump oysters don’t work for restaurants — that you have to farm restaurant-grade oysters, and went on to describe the specifics of the legislation that were previously discussed Tuesday in the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee regarding its companion bill.

The season provided has been of some debate — the bill provides for a five-month closed season, but prospective growers and their supporters maintain year-round harvesting is needed.

“So, the commissioner and the department will determine when the season is, if you will,” Petrea said. “My understanding is the season is likely going to be year-round, but all of that will be at the discretion of the department.”

In Tuesday’s Senate hearing, One Hundred Miles CEO Megan Desrosiers said using a lottery to decide leases, which is what’s in both bills, is a heavy bet for people looking to establish their business, and what should be used is a similar bidding system to that which is already employed for the wild oyster fishery.

Doug Haymans, director of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division, said Thursday a bidding process likely will be unmanageable because of the high interest and number of people who want to get involved.

“If we take applications in that same manner, we feel like we’ll be inundated and that we will be months and months and months of getting through this,” Haymans said. “The idea is that it’s a lottery system with pre-qualifiers. This industry, to get in, an estimate is $30,000-$50,000 per acre, and they may be looking at anywhere from one-five acres, so there’s a significant investment.

“If there’s not some proof of capital, whether a line of credit from a bank or (something else), that’s first. Does the person have some background in the industry? Have they either worked for another harvester somewhere, do they have some background that allows us to believe they’re going to be successful? Because the last thing we want to do is to someone a public trust resource and they fail. We want these folks to be successful.”

He said there’s a lot put into the management plans so that it’s known whether the people applying for lease consideration have the ability to be successful. Petrea noted for the committee, the bill specifies that in the lottery, “Preference may be given to certified firms, lease holders and state residents.”

Haymans, responding to a question from state Rep. Emory Dunahoo Jr., R-Gainesville, added that closed seasons in local fisheries are not at all unusual — the federal snapper-grouper fishery more than three miles off the Georgia coast has a five-month closed season, and shrimping in state waters goes through a closed season each year.

“We intend to maximize as much as possible those individuals who can harvest year-round,” Haymans said. “We want it to be successful. We’re not going to cut the legs out from under them by closing without a good reason.”

Alex Muir, advocacy coordinator with One Hundred Miles, testified Thursday and brought with her language that could be used to modify the bill going forward. For instance, she brought up the composition of the advisory board that CRD is supposed to create.

“But essentially, (the new language for the bill) would ensure that there are people working in the industry currently, fishermen, and people working on economic development in Georgia, that would be able advise how we can grow this industry,” Muir said. “And, they would be responsible for directly transmitting ideas of how this industry can grow to the chairman of (the House) Game, Fish and Parks (Committee), as well as the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.”

She also reiterated that these growers need to know they’ll be able to harvest year-round without having to “jump through hoops of red tape,” again referring to neighboring states Florida and South Carolina that allow this practice. Muir had additional language that could be incorporated in the bill to allow for year-round harvesting with standards to ensure food safety.

Some prospective oyster growers expressed confusion with the wording of the bill, especially in regard to subtidal bottoms, in that the bill’s language allows for the assumption it only would legalize shellfish farming on those bottoms. Haymans said that’s not the case.

“Floating cages are absolutely going to be the way it’s going to go,” Haymans said. “But we were informed by our … counsel that we can’t lease the water column — the state owns the bottom, and so we’re leasing you the bottom, and so you’re going to float the cage beyond that.”

Speaking last Thursday was Doug Miell, an energy, water and natural resources consultant for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, lending the Chamber’s considerable heft and influence to H.B. 501.

“The Georgia Chamber supports the objective to establish a new oyster-farming industry in regions of Coastal Georgia,” Miell said. “This bill is proposing the development of an exciting new industry that will provide investment and employment opportunities in coastal regions of the state for future oyster farmers, processors and other support industries.

“And as you noted, (committee Chairman Trey Rhodes), if we reflect on the developments of oyster farming in other, nearby states, it is possible to envision that in a few years, there could be a vibrant and profitable multi-million dollar oyster farming industry capitalizing on the unique capabilities and qualities of Georgia’s coastal regions.”

The bill passed unanimously and heads to the House Rules Committee.

The House Game, Fish and Parks Committee also took up S.B. 72, which handles a myriad of state hunting and fishing regulation changes, including allowing for the use of air guns when hunting. It also passed unanimously Thursday.

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