Two state senators are asking for more scrutiny on the permitting for caged oyster farms, a growing South Carolina industry that has attracted ire from some locals as they expand in coastal waterways.
Sens. Chip Campsen and Sandy Senn, both Charleston Republicans, have asked two state agencies to do a better job of notifying neighbors when a business applies to grow oysters with floating cages.
The cages are tethered to the bottom of a creek in this method of farming, which has been approved for seven operations around the state.
Senn told The Post and Courier on Monday that the typical notification, an item in a local newspaper's classified section, isn't sufficient. Both senators asked to be notified as applications progressed, and said it was challenging to get information from the state agencies involved.
"If you’re an affected property owner, you should be getting better notice than that," she said.
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control does initially notify property owners adjacent to a proposed farm by mail or email. It also notifies the local government, spokeswoman Laura Renwick said.
The department also posts public notices on its ePermiting web page, but it won't automatically hold a hearing unless 20 people request it.
The floating cage farms, which have operated in the state for a handful of years, help filter Lowcountry waters as wild populations of oysters struggle. The S.C. Shellfish Growers Association, an industry group, said in a statement that farmed oysters filtered an estimated 13 billion gallons of water in 2018.
But neighbors of a few farms have said they worry about the cages becoming hazards for boaters, particularly in the dark, and say the setups can ruin the natural settings of local creeks and rivers.
Campsen also questioned whether leasing public waters to private businesses is appropriate, because the cages take up the whole water column, potentially blocking someone from a favorite fishing or hunting area.
"This is a different creature. This is a use that excludes access to all others and it can get out of hand," he said. "Our resource agencies seem to just have a deaf ear."
The growers' group said oyster farmers welcome boaters to poke around their operations on the water, and argue they might help improve natural fisheries.
"Our floating oyster cages encourage and attract wildlife such as crabs, fin fish, octopi, juvenile fish, shrimp and more," their statement said.
Under current requirements, a new oyster farm has to be run by a business that has operated in the state for at least a year, or by a person who has lived here for at least that long. The permitting process involves DHEC, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the federal Army Corps of Engineers, and can last as long as a year and a half.
Growers have said they are trying to create a low-impact product that communities on the water can be proud of, and argue that floating cages produce the best oyster. On top of the water, the bivalves can find food more easily, and growers can periodically scoop them out and spin them, to control for size and shape.
One duo seeking to set up cages in Steamboat Creek, a waterway on the east side of Edisto Island, faced stiff public pushback against their proposal in a March meeting. They've now gotten permission from DHEC to set up as many as 700 cages, but that permit has been appealed, Renwick said. They are still waiting on word from DNR and the Army Corps.
In another case, a DHEC permit for 330 cages on Green Creek, near the mouth of the Stono River, was the subject of a trial this summer challenging the farm's approval. The growers, a group called Charleston Oyster Farm, are awaiting a decision from the state's Administrative Law Court.
The operation already grows some bivalves with more easily obtained bottom cages.
Tom Bierce, who runs the business with his twin brother and sister-in-law, is still hopeful they'll be allowed to float cages.
"I don’t think it hinders anybody," Bierce said. "Everyone we talk to is very interested in what we’re doing, and education and outreach is definitely something we want to incorporate into what we’re doing, but instead we’re having to fight legal battles."