With an annual value of more than $107 million, Washington leads the country in farmed shellfish production. Washington shellfish growers directly and indirectly employ more than 3,200 people with a $270 million economic impact.
"People don’t know how big this industry is for Washington State," said Regulatory Branch Section Chief Matt Bennett.
The size of the industry hit Seattle District hard when the Army Corps of Engineers reissued Nationwide permits in 2007, with Nationwide Permit 48 clarifying that every shellfish farm in Washington state was required to notify the Corps of its activities in waters of the U.S. in order to be permitted by the Corps. While the Corps has historically regulated aquaculture, preconstruction notifications (PCNs) weren’t required for existing operations prior to 2007.
This clarification meant all state shellfish farms simultaneously needed to submit preconstruction notices, which the district would need to review and use to make permit decisions.
No other state has so many shellfish farms on private lands. In other states most farms are on state land, and the state is the main permittee. In Washington more than 1,000 farms on about 30,000 acres of property needed to be verified. The District would need to evaluate each farm’s potential impact on listed threatened and endangered species, essential fish habitat, cultural resources, tribal treaty rights and navigation.
Clearly, evaluating each individual farm with regard to potential endangered species impacts wasn’t going to be practical on a case-by-case basis. Given the similar types of operation and the similar environment and locations, the district set to work beginning in 2007 to conduct programmatic consultation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries services.
Even with ESA requirements met on a programmatic level, the Regulatory Branch would still need to evaluate each farm’s preconstruction notification to ensure it was complete, accurate and met the requirements to allow the farm to be permitted under Nationwide Permit 48.
In 2011 with programmatic consultation complete, but with new Nationwide permits (and changed requirements for NWP 48) on the horizon for 2012, the district faced a choice: process the 900+ PCNs then and then again with 2012 NWP 48, or process them all in 2012. The district opted to lay all the ground work and use the 2012 permits.
The branch initially established the "A" team – A is for Aquaculture – a group of half a dozen project managers in Regulatory (Suzanne Anderson, Darren Habel, Erin Legg, Lori Lull, Jacalen Printz, Karen Urelius and Ron Wilcox) working with program lead Pam Sanguinetti to develop standard procedures for PCN verification. They set up templates and tools to make the process efficient and consistent for all applicants.
Shellfish has been grown commercially in Washington for more than 150 years, and many farmers are the fourth and fifth generation in their families to grow shellfish. Even some of the largest shellfish companies are family-owned and operated.
In 2011, the district provided an informational workshop for growers and local jurisdictions to make sure the PCN requirements and the permitting process were clear to the hundreds affected. "Often these family-owned farms don’t have agents," said Sanguinetti. They have to make their way through the process on their own.
The A team then set up training for all district regulators – the "B" team – so that each PM in the branch could contribute by verifying PCNs in addition to his or her normal workload. "It was an all-hands-on-deck effort," according to Bennett.
Regulatory had dedicated aquaculture days when all employees concentrated on NWP 48s. "We had parties, costumes, food," said Bennett. "We tried to keep it fun."
Even with all the Seattle District regulators (including those in the Vancouver and Bellingham field offices) processing NWP 48 applications, the Regulatory Branch was facing an additional workload equal to a year’s worth of actions. The Regulatory Branch annually processes between 800 and 1,000 applications, and they have seen 1,066 NWP 48 PCNs.
The Branch brought in a full-time detailed employee from Sacramento District to work on only NWP 48 actions. However, they soon "determined that the level of effort was higher that one detail and the A plus B teams could reasonably accomplish," said Bennett. "We used the initial detail as a model to form a team of detailees."
With a detailed team of six employees from around the Corps, a rehired annuitant and a Workforce Recruitment Program student administrative assistant, the NWP 48 processing kicked into high gear. "We assigned a PM to a set of growers so each grower had a consistent point of contact and the PM got to know those growers and their operations," said Sanguinetti.
The team worked for four months straight to tackle the reams of PCNs. The district has processed 998 to date with 139 left to go as PCNs continue to trickle in.
"Pam led this effort, providing oversight," said Bennett. "They all did an outstanding job."
Now all permits that have been verified are good for five years, and although the tidal wave of PCNs will hit again in 2017, "It will be much easier next time" with the initial documentation done and all the tools and processes in place, said Bennett.