The state is looking to bolster its evolving aquaculture industry, a sector that has experienced significant growth over the past five years — even after Hurricane Sandy hammered parts of it hard.
There are now 319 leaseholders farming primarily shellfish on 35,226 acres in three new Aquaculture Development Zones in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic coastal bays and rivers, according to the state’s coastal management program in the Department of Environmental Protection.
Hoping to give a boost to the sector, legislation is being pushed to create a “one-step shopping permit,’’ eliminating layers of bureaucracy that applicants are now forced to navigate. The bill (S-317) won approval from the Senate Economic Growth Committee earlier this month.
“New Jersey has the potential to boost the aquaculture industry and to really grow the production of oysters on our coasts — which we know are loved by seafood connoisseurs across the country and around the world,’’ said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), the sponsor of the bill.
The bill would improve the permitting process by reducing the time and money aquatic farmers need to comply with requirements. They currently have to navigate nearly a dozen agencies and bureaus, according to Van Drew. “This is a commonsense way to help business owners and aquatic farmers expand their operations in the state.,’’ he said.
The bill would consolidate the review process by requiring the state Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the state commissioner of the DEP, to develop a coordinated aquaculture permitting program. Under an amendment pushed by the New Jersey Sierra Club, the process must not change any environmental policies or standards.
In New Jersey, aquaculture mostly involves hard clams and oysters, and much of the leasing occurs in the Delaware Bay. The process includes regular stocking, feeding, and protection from predators in order to improve production.
In a DEP assessment and strategy for its coastal management program for 2016-2020, aquaculture is targeted as a “high priority’’ area to be enhanced. The plan noted the industry is evolving from traditional — shellfish planting and seed transplanting — to nontraditional methods of farming and new regulations may be necessary.
The plan said it hopes to facilitate the expansion of the sector while continuing to protect the state’s coastal resources. In addition to new regulatory changes, it recommended more research into its impact be conducted.
“If sited appropriately, shellfish aquaculture can enhance the coastal ecosystem through the creation of habitat and through enhanced water-filtration capacity,’’ according to the plan.