Georgia Senate approves bill regulating oyster farming

The Georgia Senate on Monday approved legislation that would allow oyster farming and set up regulations for the industry.

House Bill 501, which passed on a party-line vote of 35-19, now heads to the governor's desk for his approval.

The legislation would allow Georgia shellfish companies to create oyster “farms” in leased public waters. Currently, oysters can only be harvested from the wild.

Supporters of the legislation say the bill is a way to cash in on an industry that nearby states, such as South Carolina and Florida, have already.

"This is attempt to start an industry in our state that we currently do no have," said Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla. "I think this is a great step in that direction."

The chamber unanimously passed a similar version of the proposal, Senate Bill 182, but since then Democrats said they've heard an outcry from seafood growers who oppose the bill.

Shellfish growers say a provision in the bill that would create an oyster harvesting season would severely limit their ability to do business. For example, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources would determine what time of year oysters could be harvested.

“Growing and cultivating shellfish is a difficult full-time job, not a hobby,” said Karen Sharpe, a Woodbine-based shellfish farmer. “To have any chance of ever making a living, a grower must put in eight- to 14-hour days and make a very large financial investment.”