The Washington Shellfish Initiative is the first project announced in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's current effort to close a $9 billion seafood trade deficit by supporting domestic shellfish operations. The initiative calls for improving water quality, studying ocean acidification and restoring native shellfish, such as the Olympia oyster. Gov. Chris Gregoire last week pledged more than $4 million in federal funds to programs which will identify and fix failing septic systems, and prevent manure from reaching shellfish beds.
But the creation of an inter-agency panel to examine and address procedural redundancies in the permitting process could have the most immediate effect on the state's shellfish industry, shellfish farmers say.
"We've had a rough go of it in recent years," says Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms. "Permitting has gotten so convoluted, we can't find our way out of it."
According to Dewey, the state hasn't issued a new shellfish farm permit in five years. Taylor's attempt to secure a permit for a stretch of Totten Inlet has been undergoing review for 14 years. Dewey says Taylor can't keep up with demand under the current protracted permitting system.
"We've been forced to purchase existing farms up in Canada," Dewey says. "We have 100 employees working for us up in BC which, in reality, could have been Washington jobs."
The Army Corps of Engineers in 2007 issued a standard set of evaluation criteria for shellfish farms nationwide, involving more agencies in the review process. Farmers say the complexities of demonstrating to multiple agencies at the local, state and federal levels that their activities won't harm threatened or endangered species have made it nearly impossible to farm additional land.
Washington is the nation's top producer of farmed shellfish, with $107 million in annual revenue. The industry currently employs 3200 people statewide. Politicians and farmers are eager to increase both figures, a desire that drove a recent permitting revision on the east coast.
Maryland this year streamlined its permitting process, allowing shellfish growers to file one application with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources rather than having to seek approval from three different state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers. Under the new system, which was introduced in August, permit applications are adjudicated in fewer than 120 days.
"That would be a dream come true," Dewey says.