There’s been progress on developing the process for legal oyster farming in Georgia, but it still has some ways to go.

NOAA Sea Grant and the National Sea Grant Law Center — with Georgia Sea Grant and the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government — conducted a seminar Wednesday going over new shellfish law. As observers may be aware and no doubt expected, there is a fair amount of permitting involved.

“Until the 1930s, we actually led the country with 13 canneries,” said Shana Jones, director of the Georgia Sea Grant Law program. “That has changed, obviously. Overharvesting and market changes led to a decline. And while the clumped oysters are wonderful to steam and they’re great to eat, and great for canning, tastes have changed. People don’t eat as much canned oysters as they used to, they eat them on the half-shell.”

That brings us to where we are now.

“This is probably straight-ahead in most places, but first you have to be in approved shellfish water under the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, you have to have a right to harvest those oysters, you have to qualify for a master harvester permit, and then you have a series of licenses to get,” Jones said.

These approved waters are the responsibility of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division.

CRD is in the process of detailing the areas of the state where oyster farming will be allowed, and give notice when that occurs. There are legal considerations state regulators must take into account including navigation, fishing, swimming and other recreation.

Oyster farming will take place in sub-tidal areas in which the oysters grow in cages below the waterline. The state can’t lease the water, but it can lease the land under the water, which is what oyster farmers will have to do. Of course, there are exceptions.

“The water bottoms are owned by the state,” Jones said. “Now in Georgia — and this may be true in other Eastern states, there’s what’s known as king’s grants, which is if you can trace your title all the way back to when the king was issuing grants, before Georgia became a state, you may actually have ownership over (a) water bottom.”

But such a historical ownership is unlikely in most instances.

One of the more-controversial aspects of the law as it made its way through the General Assembly is who gets priority. In awarding the leases, CRD is to use a lottery system which is to include preferences for certified firms, lease-holders and state residents, at a cost of a minimum $50 per acre. More details are expected at some point.

Commercial harvesting additionally requires the lessee to obtain a master harvester permit, and anyone working under them would need a harvester permit. Master harvesters must be certified to handle shellfish by the state Department of Agriculture. Both commercial oyster farmers and their harvesters will also need a state fishing license with shellfish endorsement and a commercial fishing boat license.

Another controversial aspect of the law is restricted harvest periods. Summer harvest restriction exceptions are possible, but people will need a closed-season operational plan, a list of trained harvesters and a list of the receiving certified firms that are buying your oysters.

Not to be forgotten, but to start out in the process, people will need to buy their seed from a CRD-approved hatchery.

The look at Georgia’s evolving oyster laws comes through a process of examining at shellfish aquaculture in a number of states.

“This arises out of a NOAA Sea Grant-funded project, ‘Overcoming Impediments to Shellfish Aquaculture,’ that the National Sea Grant Law Center and a team of collaborators received in 2017,” said Stephanie Otts, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program and the National Sea Grant Law Center.

“And the overall objective of the project was to do legal research to identify challenges or barriers to shellfish aquaculture on the law and policy side, and we did this by developing eight case studies from around the country.”

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