Tyler Harper, the state Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee chairman, may have tried to speed along the passage of the oyster mariculture bill — House Bill 501 — by noting it had the same language in Senate Bill 182, which earlier passed the committee and the full Senate.
After bringing up the legislation, he entertained — a little more than two minutes later — a motion and a second to pass the bill. However, Harper noted several people signed up to discuss the legislation.
“I will — just out of fairness to them — I will give them one minute a piece since we have a motion on the floor, and since the committee seems willing to move forward,” Harper said.
The discussion lasted for nearly 30 minutes, and included, at times, heated testimony to the committee by Savannah Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea, the bill’s sponsor, and state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island. Jones spoke first, giving background as to his experience with the subject and legislation.
“In the remaining 30 seconds that I have here, let me make it clear to this committee, this bill does not have the support of the producers, of the people, this legislation is intended to help,” Jones said. “And so, I would submit to this committee, if this legislation is not supported by those people, the oystermen and the producers and the distributors and the restauranteurs, if they do not support this legislation, I just have to ask then, why are we even considering passage of this legislation?
“If this legislation does not help those that we are working to help, and in fact will work against the growth of the mariculture industry in Georgia, then I submit to you that this bill should not be passed out of committee today.”
In responding to a question by state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, as to his issues with the bill, Jones said it doesn’t guarantee year-round harvesting, with which Ginn disagreed. This has been a running debate as these bills have moved through — the bill provides for the possibility of a 12-month harvest, but in the law, the state Department of Natural Resources is authorized to close harvesting when appropriate, and a harvester would have to petition for permission to harvest during those times. There has been suggestion of a five-month closed season.
Jones also brought up a number of other issues that have been discussed at prior hearings, including leases by lottery and spat importation.
State Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, asked why H.B. 501 was good for Savannah and not for Brunswick, making reference to Petrea and Jones, who sat next to each other at a table before the committee members.
“The representative here is obviously making the perfect the enemy of the good,” Petrea said. “And so let me tell you, as someone whose family has been on the Georgia coast since the Revolution, I believe this is good. This is creating an industry in Georgia that does not exist today. Now, some of the things the representative has spoken to, and I appreciate his concern for entrepreneurs — I am an entrepreneur and will want to make sure we get this right and that the industry likes this bill, and that this industry grows and thrives. Nobody would want anything but that — that is a fact.
“But at the same time, having spent my lifetime on the water, we have got a product that is very sensitive. Oysters can be dangerous. I think everyone here is aware of that.”
Petrea said he didn’t want to belabor the point because Harper said there was plenty of debate earlier on S.B. 182, but that there has to be efforts made to ensure food safety. He also reiterated that the bill provides for a year-round season, with regulatory protections to ensure product safety — testimony from the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division centered around this concern, while those who want more open language in the bill say that’s not an issue in neighboring states.
“This is the bill the Department of Agriculture supports, the Department of Natural Resources supports, and our entire coastal delegation, but one member, supports,” Petrea said. “And I want to make that very clear. Going back to finalize with the senator’s good question, it’s not just that he and I disagree, our entire coastal delegation disagrees with Rep. Jones, and I want everyone here to know that today.”
Jones said there were 60 votes in the House against H.B. 501, and that it would create burdensome regulations that would hamper the industry’s growth.
Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn briefly testified to the committee, reminding them that any oyster served at a restaurant in Georgia isn’t coming from Georgia waters.
“It’s from Louisiana or it’s from Texas, it’s from somewhere else, and the longer you transport something, wouldn’t that mean the better chance it has of getting bacteria and making you sick?” Hilburn said. “So it seems fair to me to think about public safety, that Georgia-grown oysters would actually be a safer option all through the year, and not just implied consent, but actual full consent that they will have a 12-month season. Of course, besides hurricanes and water quality issues.”
Les Schneider — managing partner at the Atlanta law firm Wimberly Lawson, and on the board of directors of Inland Fresh Seafood, the largest seafood distributor in the Southeast — said a generation ago, two well-intentioned legislators put together a banking bill that ended up letting the state’s largest banks leave for Charlotte.
“I would make one suggestion — you heard a lot of comments about the industry having some concerns about the bill,” Schneider said. “We’ve talked about safety to the public — that obviously has to be weighed. I would ask that if you would consider the fact that perhaps there should be, as part of the legislation, an advisory board made up of the regulators and the distributors and the farmers and the harvesters and all of those folks, let them sit during this interim and have a discussion about this.”
He said they could just make the effective date of the legislation July 1, 2020, while allowing the food safety regulations go into effect earlier. As for everything else, this advisory committee could hash out the best plan from the ideas proposed.
CRD Director Doug Haymans said in prior hearings on oyster mariculture this session that there would be a shellfish advisory committee created, even though it’s not specifically in the bill.
The committee, with two no votes, approved H.B. 501, which now moves to the Senate Rules Committee. It also approved H.B. 382 on Tuesday, which provides for the organizations that can apply for and receive money through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.