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Editorial: SC oyster farm permitting needs more transparency

Oyster farm.jpg (copy)

An oyster farm is set up to grow oysters in cages on Green Creek near James Island on Thursday, April 8, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Regardless of whether a conflict of interest played a role in the state’s allowing a controversial oyster farming operation near Folly Beach — and most indications are it did not — South Carolina needs to improve its processes for reviewing and allowing this relatively new form of mariculture.

The changes should provide more notice — especially earlier in the permitting process — to those who would be most affected by the floating cages. The state also should study whether it charges enough to lease our public waterways for such farming, given the much higher lease prices in nearby states, or whether the current arrangement essentially amounts to a giveaway to the growers.

The latest installment of The Post and Courier's "Uncovered" series is a bit different than the others. Although reporter Glenn Smith's "Shell game" expose focuses on claims of self-dealing by a former state regulator, the real value is shining a light on the way the state works with those wishing to grow oysters in cages along public creeks and with those most impacted by it. What we see is that even when there are no conflicts of interest, our regulatory system is one in need of reforms.

Even those in the industry agree.

Trey McMillan, who has two oyster farming permits south of Charleston and serves as vice president of the S.C. Shellfish Growers Association, said an improved process could benefit not just the public but farmers as well. Currently, those seeking permits have to invest a lot to even get to a public notice stage. “I think there needs to be more communication upfront with surrounding land owners,” he said. “That needs to be very clear.” Also, he said state and federal permitting agencies sometimes send conflicting requests.

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Two Charleston area state senators, Sandy Senn and Chip Campsen, have pushed for more public notice about plans for future farms, and we would encourage them to keep at it but also to question whether the state’s lease rates give state taxpayers fair compensation when growers are essentially able to limit public access to the public waterways, particularly since South Carolina’s current rate of $5 to $10 per acre is so far below North Carolina’s ($100 per acre). Also, the state should consider limiting how many permits it issues.

This incarnation of oyster farming is only about a decade old, and while Mr. McMillan says coastal geographical constraints will essentially limit the number of oyster farming permits much beyond the eight already on the books, his group is open to making it a limited fishery. “I don’t think that would be a bad thing,” he said. “It protects the people. It protects the farmers. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

While many find the cages unsightly, oyster farming has clear benefits, mainly providing restaurants with high-quality oysters while also relieving the significant pressure that South Carolina’s public oyster beds have experienced as the coastal population grows. Oysters also filter our coastal waters, so in that sense, the more of them, the better. (Maryland recently created a water-quality trading program that can reward oyster farmers for their role in helping clean up the Chesapeake Bay).

As with any other state-regulated economic endeavor, we need assurance that our government is finding the right balance between supporting the private interests who stand to profit and the public’s interest — in this case protecting the waters we all own. We simply don’t have that now.

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