2021 Oyster Mariculture in Georgia: Updates to the Legal and Regulatory Framework
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2021 Oyster Mariculture in Georgia: Updates to the Legal and Regulatory Framework

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    Prior to 2019, Georgia law only allowed the leasing of state-owned intertidal waters to commercially harvest wild oysters. Georgia’s 2019 oyster law amended state law to allow leases for oyster farming, also known as oyster mariculture, which utilizes “on-bottom” cages in shallow, intertidal waters and “off-bottom,” floating cages in deeper, subtidal waters. The new legal framework—a combination of the 2019 law, regulations adopted by the Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division (CRD) in 2020, and CRD’s May 2021 Shellfish Policy Manual guidance—creates the mechanisms for obtaining these intertidal and subtidal leases from the State to establish oyster farms. In June 2021, CRD conducted its first official subtidal lease lottery for the “Mud River Mariculture Zone” near Sapelo Island and issued the State’s first three modern floating oyster farm leases shortly thereafter. These subtidal leases have the unique potential to create a sustainable supply of farmed oysters more suited to the modern half-shell market already tapped in other coastal states. Georgia’s new legal framework also designates several permits, including a new shellfish mariculture permit and corresponding cage permits for modern oyster farming equipment, as well as future plans for summer, “closed season” harvest and out-of-state oyster seed importation permits. With further details for application processes, production requirements, management plans, “cultch” or recycled shell deployment, and certification checklists, the law also more broadly impacts the State’s ability to rebuild its historic oyster industry and utilize its oyster resource to enhance coastal resiliency, both ecologically and economically. The demand for farmed oysters remains high, and Georgia’s oyster law has the potential to produce substantial benefits if the State’s watermen, regulators, industry stakeholders, and coastal residents continue to work together toward shared goals.
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