Duane LaBrew, 36, of Townsend, an oysterman with Sapelo Sea Farms in Townsend, combs through a mess of wild Georgia oysters looking for desirable oysters off the coast of McIntosh County last year.

A bill to legalize and regulate oyster farming in Georgia made it out of a state Senate committee late Tuesday afternoon despite serious reservations voiced about perceived over-regulation of the fishery, the diversity of opinions considered in forming regulatory processes and the ability to harvest shellfish year-round.

If you were looking for the bill on the General Assembly website before Tuesday morning, you were out of luck — Senate Bill 182, whose lead sponsor is state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, wasn’t filed until Monday, and in a quirk of scheduling, wasn’t available to the public outside the Gold Dome, even though the agenda for the committee meeting on the bill posted that evening listed it as under consideration. Bills filed one day typically are not available online until the next day.

Regardless, there was a spirited discussion in the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee among the staff of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division, Atlamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn, One Hundred Miles CEO Megan Desrosiers and members of the committee.

“At the heart of this is ensuring the public safety, so that’s why the permitting piece is so important — that we insure that this is done safely,” said Wes Robinson, director of public affairs for DNR. “Often, oysters are consumed raw, and so ensuring the public safety is a paramount issue. We think this does have the appropriate protocols to have a safe shellfish program in Georgia that does include appropriate protocols for having a year-long season in the state of Georgia.

“Additionally, the other key component here is the siting piece. Because this activity would be taking place in public waters, it is important that the siting piece is done in a public manner, in a fair manner, and so these activities would take place in department-approved growing areas.

“These are areas — and to be clear, this is specifically toward the farming of oysters, that activity addressed in here — but the siting process would be done through a lottery process. It’d be done in approved growing areas where the department has seen that the water quality is of adequate standard to make sure this is done safely and that the public resource is used in the best way possible.”

The bill provides for a closed season, which can be opened upon request and authorization, along with the usual ability for the DNR commissioner to order a fishery closure in the event of an emergency like a tropical cyclone, algal bloom, oil spill or something similar.

CRD Director Doug Haymans said should the bill go into law, CRD will develop a shellfish advisory panel, which he said hasn’t been necessary yet as seven of the eight shellfish growers in the state are part of the Georgia Shellfish Growers Association, and CRD uses that effectively as an advisory panel.

“Oysters are a tremendous filter-feeder, and there’s a lot of positive benefits there,” Haymans said. “And I’ll just tell you the Atlanta restaurant market, is part of what’s driving this request — big market, and we would love to help fulfill that market and get the product that they want, but shellfish is not an easy issue.”

He later said that, because the processes won’t be developed in time at the necessary level, he doesn’t think DNR can allow a 12-month harvest this year or next year, but that the agency wants to provide for a 12-month harvest eventually while reducing the risk of dangerous bacteria, like Vibrio, during the warm months.

Both Hilburn and Desrosiers said their organizations oppose the bill as presently written.

“This bill stops the production of this business before it even gets started,” Hilburn said. “I recognize that there are a lot of things in it, like the advisory boards that have been talked about, but … CRD, giving the rules to the DNR board to vote on, does not include an advisory board.

“I’ve spoken to many fishermen in McIntosh and Glynn County, and all of them oppose this bill as it’s seen here today. They ask me, ‘What kind of business would you start where you can’t sell your product for five months a year, and where your government tells you where you can get your supply?’ And that’s a very, very valid point. Again, that’s not happening with clams here in Georgia, so why is it happening with oysters?”

Desrosiers said the leasing lottery is arbitrary and counterproductive to encouraging people to invest money in a shellfish aquaculture operation.

“A lottery system is not what you want to build a business on,” Desrosiers said. “So, we’re recommending that the leases for both intertidal and subtidal water bottoms are handled the same way. A lottery doesn’t make any sense to us.”

Committee Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, said that as he reads the bill, it’s possible to have a 12-month harvest under certain protocols. Desrosiers said that, however, with no guarantee of a 12-month harvest, the proper move is to allow growers to opt-out of a 12-month harvest rather than make them take action to opt-in. She added that the major issue with the legislation as its stands is over-regulation and a lack of input from a properly diverse set of stakeholders.

“This bill doesn’t look like what we started with…,” Desrosiers said. “And we are in support of the idea of the oyster industry, the shellfish industry, growing. But this bill doesn’t get us there.”

Ligon, who was late to the meeting as he had responsibilities in chairing the Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee that also met Tuesday afternoon, said he thinks S.B. 182 gets to where, for the large part, people on the coast want to be with shellfish aquaculture.

“It really can be a multimillion-dollar business for Coastal Georgia,” Ligon said. “I’m just glad to be a part of it — I know in the House, Rep. (Jeff) Jones has worked very hard on this, and so I think it’s something that’s timely in Georgia. I know that there may not be perfect agreement on everything on behalf of some of the stakeholders, but this is an important first step, and I do think we need to take that step and we’ll do that by passing Senate Bill 182, as substitute.”

The substitute version of the bill was not immediately available as of press time Tuesday. S.B. 182 now moves to the Senate Rules Committee.

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