Barring an unlikely veto by the governor, Georgia will have a new coastal industry by this time next year, despite continued opposition by people who would be expected to grow that industry. The state Senate approved House Bill 501 on oyster mariculture Monday by a vote of 35-19. That comes a little more than two weeks since the chamber passed identical legislation, Senate Bill 182, by a 54-0 vote.

The growth in opposition is thanks to an alliance of those in the seafood industry and environmental advocates who argued for more specifics and less regulation, with a major sticking point being year-round harvesting.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, put that question to state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, who carried the bill in the Senate.

“First of all, I don’t think it over-regulates it,” Ligon said. “One of the criticisms is the season’s just not automatically open all year-round, but as we discussed last time, there is concern for disease. During the summer months, the bacteria that causes that disease is present in the waters.

“A harvester can obtain permission to harvest year-round, but we need some extra regulation on that to ensure the safety of the consumer. While people do eat oysters fried or steamed, they’re also consumed raw, and you have to be very careful about that for public safety reasons.”

Ligon added that it’s prudent to have some extra oversight at the beginning of an industry to make sure everything’s done right, and once oyster mariculture gets underway, legislators and regulators can revisit the issue to see what needs adjusting.

“There will be an advisory committee where members of the industry will be on that committee, they will provide input to the department on rulemaking,” Ligon said. “This has been very productive for our shrimping and crab and finfish industries in Georgia, so let’s follow that same model with this, let’s see how it goes. If we need to make adjustments, we will, but let’s err on the side of public safety.”

Before the vote, a letter to the senators from state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams was placed on each desk, promising the establishment of an oyster advisory committee. State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said that while such assurances are nice, there’s no guarantee about who will sit on that panel.

Within DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, there are citizen advisory groups. One — the Marine Fisheries Advisory Council — is comprised of members of the three advisory panels on blue crab, finfish and shrimp. As of November, all of the members of these groups are from coastal counties. The members are a mix of commercial and recreational people, and each panel has a scientist as well.

Before Monday’s vote, a number of people in the seafood industry sent letters in opposition to H.B. 501 to senators in the hopes of the vote going the other way.

Charlie Phillips of Sapelo Sea Farms said regarding both H.B. 501 and S.B. 182, “They do not take the industry to the level of production that is possible for Georgia to be a leader in oyster production, nor do the bills make shellfish any safer than they are now.

"The National Shellfish Sanitation Program regulations along with the regulations and sanitation standards required by the Agriculture Department keep the public safety in the forefront.

“These CRD bills, H.B. 501 and S.B. 182, were not crafted with industry input and are overly restrictive. They will hinder rather than help the oyster industry grow. I respect CRD’s efforts to support the growth of oyster aquaculture but the path forward for growth will be minimal without serious industry input. The growers will be the ones to gigue out how to make Georgia a major oyster producer with help from UGA doing research.”

Also sending letters were Inland Seafood CEO Joel Knox and COO Bill Demmond, Sidney Shepherd of Good Shepherd Consulting Services, Bryan Rackley of Kimball House, Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits and Oyster South, and Justin Dotson of the Great Georgia Oyster Company. State Rep. Jeff Jones, who spearheaded efforts into oyster farming legalization before the session, also sent a letter in opposition.

With the Senate’s approval of H.B. 501, it goes back to the House, where it will then move on to the governor for his signature.

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