Q&A: Coastal Resources director on protecting the salt marsh, red snapper, and keeping oysters safe to eat
Doug Haymans is a coastal Georgia native who grew up in the small town of Richmond Hill, near Savannah, where he did a lot of fishing and hunting in his youth. After studying biology at the University of Georgia, he became a fisheries expert, working with oysters in Maryland and as a fisheries biologist in Florida.
Haymans migrated back to Georgia in 1999 and began working for the Coastal Resources Division (CRD) of the Department of Natural Resources, running the boating/fishing and habitat programs, writing regulatory compliance reports and getting increasingly involved in policy and legislation. In 2017, he was appointed director of the CRD, based in Brunswick, where he manages 68 employees and an $8.5 million budget.
Haymans talked to State Affairs about his current priorities for the division, including protecting vulnerable species from natural and manmade threats, supporting fisheries, and responding to how climate change is impacting salt marshes along the coast. He gave us a sneak peek at the CRD’s annual Coastal Georgia Ecosystem Report Card, which will be released this Saturday — Earth Day (look out for our story including the report card then). He also gave us a preview of CoastFest, the annual event in Brunswick that celebrates the ecology and culture of coastal Georgia, also happening Saturday.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is the scope of the Coastal Resources Division? What geographic areas do you cover, and what are you in charge of?
So we're one of five divisions in the Department of Natural Resources, and we work closely with our other divisions on a daily basis. Our mission is to balance development, protection of natural assets, social and cultural heritage, and recreational resources for present and future generations. And I do a lot of presentations to civic groups, and I tell folks that ‘balance’ is a good visual for me, but it oftentimes feels like a vise. Seems like you're being squeezed between the various competing interests.
At Coastal Resources, we have three primary responsibilities — the first is fisheries. We are marine fisheries-focused. That does not include whales, turtles, dolphins, manatees, things of that nature. Those fall under our Wildlife Resources Division. So think trout, flounder, red drum, tripletail. With regard to fisheries, we work cooperatively both interstate and federally, with our sister states and the federal government. Then we have an 11-county area of responsibility which extends along basically the entire coast … which is roughly 105 miles long, and one tier of counties inland. We’re responsible for managing our shores, our beaches and our marshes, and that includes saltwater from three miles offshore and up through our tidal wetlands and extending inland as far as the reach of the tide.
What are some of the most challenging issues right now that you're managing as you're trying to strike that balance between protecting wildlife and the species living along the coast with all of the competing interests driven by people and development and commerce?
Well, I'll just say that development is an always ongoing thing. There are times when there's more development because the economy is doing better than others, but the Coastal Marshes Protection Act and the Shore Protection Act have been in place since 1970 and 1979, respectively, and we try the best we can to apply those laws to development as each project comes up. And ultimately, we have a committee of citizens that make decisions on the larger permits, community docks, marinas, commercial development, things like that along the marsh, or things that impact the beaches. And we do our best to work within the confines of those laws to get the best projects that we can. Those are always challenging. Because you’re working around sensitive environments, you know, the marsh and the beaches.
But on top of that now are the things related to climate change and sea level rise. I don't think anyone can doubt — the Cockspur Island Lighthouse in Savannah is our primary indicator, and it has shown increasing levels of sea level rise over the last century. We look at storm events, we look at sunny day, high-tide flooding events, which are more frequent than they had been in the past. We feel like we understand that sea levels are rising, and we’re predicting 3 feet over the next 100 years or so. My office will be underwater. A lot of coastal Georgia will be underwater. With increased tides and increasing sea level rise, we look at things like salt marsh migration, and will the salt marsh keep up with sea level rise where it sits, or does it need a place to grow horizontally across the plane? All of those are things that we're looking at, and we’re working with other groups to try to figure out how we can best help the local communities prepare for that, and mitigate that.
And then on the fisheries side, you know, the hot button topics are red drum, red snapper. We struggle with quote-unquote overfishing, and how to best address it. And oftentimes, some of the only tools you have are to limit opportunity. And fishermen don't like that [restrictions on the number of fish allowed to be harvested].
On Saturday, you’ll be releasing your annual coastal ecology report card. What are some of the key takeaways?
I will say from my involvement over the years, it's a good way for all of the divisions to come together to share data in a meaningful way. We work closely with our Wildlife Resources Division on it. It’s one time that all of us are able to sit down and sort of look at the data together and see whether there's anything that's causing concern or not. I will say that there's a lot of things that go into the report card that are out of our control, like weather, rainfall, drought, natural biologics, things like the avian flu [i.e., bird flu]. …This year blue crab is really down in the scoring, and we believe it's down because of the change in rainfall this past year, which affects salinity.
The report indicates that water quality is good this year. How does that impact crab and shellfish, and what do you have to look out for that might make people sick?
It really depends on the critter. With crab, the disease is a naturally occurring micro [parasite] that occurs in the water, and it occurs in greater concentrations the warmer and drier it is. The same thing occurs with shrimp. The saltier the water is, the drier it is, the greater the prevalence of black gill disease. Since crabs are cooked, there are less health concerns. Same thing with black eel and shrimp. Again, it's a cooked product. We rarely eat it raw, maybe some sushi, where you’re eating the body, not the gills. In oysters, we're looking harder at Vibrio bacteria because there's more that does occur in drier, saltier, warmer conditions, i.e., the summertime. And it is deadly to those who are immunocompromised. And that animal is often consumed raw. And so there is no opportunity to kill that bacteria. And that's why we have such concern over summer harvest of oysters, and we need to make sure that we get it right.
In 2019, a bill to allow oyster farming in Georgia was passed. Farmers have pushed for summer harvesting. You’ve said that could happen if they can develop a way to keep them chilled from harvest to table. How is that progressing?
We haven't gotten into summer harvest yet because the whole aquaculture farming of oysters hasn't gotten off the ground yet. We’ve issued six subtitle leases, but the farmers are still waiting on their final permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. …We have individuals who are wild harvesting, and a couple who are growing in intertidal cages, but we don't let any of those folks harvest during the summertime because of health concerns. So our oyster industry in Georgia, we shut it down right around June 1. We close it through the summertime and we don't reopen until we get into September when the water temperatures drop below 80 degrees.
As we work into aquaculture, we’ll begin exploring summer harvest. That's what the farmers want, a year-round opportunity to sell their product. The [regulation] isn't just in Georgia. This is nationally through the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. All of the states and the FDA have agreed on certain limitations for warm-water harvest. So we’ll be living within those restrictions when we start off oyster aquaculture farming.
An area where you’re having to balance competing interests is around the ports in Savannah and Brunswick. There’s so much need to increase the capacity of the ports. How are you involved in trying to make sure there's the least amount of ecological disruption involved with that?
Anytime there's a major Corps project like that, we are involved in it from the ground up, and I'm thinking specifically of the Savannah River Harbor deepening project. Both my division as well as Wildlife Resources Division had representation on those teams. And we worked for years to mitigate as much as possible the effects of deepening the Savannah River. We all understand that ports are the engine that drives the economy of Georgia to a large degree. And none of us want to stand in the way of that and we work with, you know, our counterparts in the ports and with the Corps to have input where we can. And for the ports, their emphasis was, as long as we can keep the harbors dredged and open, we don’t care when that occurs. And the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, on dredging. The Savannah River's a highly impacted ecosystem. And then obviously the Port of Brunswick. And for the most part, those are maintenance dredging projects now. We certainly provide feedback regarding the occurrence of species, what species are there and what their biological requirements are.
Tell us about what's happening at CoastFest in Brunswick this weekend.
CoastFest is undoubtedly our largest outreach event of the year. …We've been on a three-year hiatus, two years because of COVID, and then last year because of a hurricane. We can't go another moment without CoastFest. And it’s just a natural fit and it works with Earth Day. It's a free event for the community. We draw somewhere around 9,000 to 10,000 people over a six-hour period. We have 40-plus exhibitors from across coastal Georgia and inland who have all sorts of environmental education opportunities. Colleges and universities come, and various [nonprofits] come with shows and demonstrations. It’s a great time.
Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @journalistajill or at [email protected].
Header image: Sunrise over the Altamaha River. In partnership with Georgia Division of Natural Resoures, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used dredge material from the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to enlarge a shorebird nesting island in the Altamaha Sound to help offset the loss of nesting areas washed away over the past several years from hurricanes and tropical storms.(Credit: Andy Johnson/Cornell University via Georgia CDR)
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How to be your own lawyer in Georgia (and when you shouldn’t)
In his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers, judges and others assembled for the joint legislative session about challenges the state faces in providing access to justice for Georgians.
The first is an “astounding” backlog of civil and criminal cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said will take some county and state courts years to catch up on. The second is a statewide shortage of lawyers.
Fulton County alone has 4,000 pending indicted felony cases, and 14,000 unindicted felony cases, Boggs said.
Defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, or even years. In Dougherty County, more than 200 people who’ve been charged but not convicted have been in jail for more than two years.
As for judicial access, of 159 counties in Georgia, 67 have 10 or fewer licensed practicing attorneys, and seven — all rural counties — have none at all.
Boggs said the legal workforce shortage significantly impacts civil cases such as divorces, child custody and eviction proceedings. He also noted that there is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases. “The basic right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” said Boggs.
One imperfect solution to this lack of legal representation is for people to represent themselves.
It’s not a new practice — people have done it for decades, from contract disputes in small claims courts to major felonies in superior courts. In 2021, 1.1 million people led their own cases in criminal and civil courts in Georgia.
But the outcomes aren’t always good. Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said in 2017 that self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge, are more likely to lose their cases, and tend to slow down court proceedings.
Since then, the Access to Justice Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia has led a statewide effort to create more resources to help people of low and middle incomes to represent themselves better, and to make courts more user-friendly, including an expansion of online legal resources.
Georgians can now access free legal forms based on Georgia code, related how-to videos and detailed instructions for common legal matters in family law, probate law (such as wills, guardianship and estate settlement), landlord-tenant law, advance health directives and name changes.
Most county courts have some online forms, as well as physical law libraries with printed forms and legal research materials available to the public.
Over the past five years, more than a dozen libraries around the state have expanded to become legal self-help centers staffed by paralegals or other trained personnel who can walk people through the maze of forms and explain how to complete and file a legal document properly. Nancy Long is one such legal “navigator,” working at the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center in Dougherty County in Albany. Southwest Georgia has many counties considered to be legal deserts, including four with no active, licensed lawyers.
Long, a paralegal, said many people come into the center “afraid and intimidated by the legal system, and we help them figure out the forms and the legal terms, explain what things mean, and guide them through the system.”
Recently the center helped a man who wanted to legally acknowledge his child so the child could inherit from him. The staff provided information about the legitimation process, and he successfully represented himself in court.
The Southwest Georgia center also has tech set up for people to attend court hearings remotely via Zoom, which enables many residents without internet to access the courts and legal counsel in other cities.
A Word of Caution
When it becomes clear that someone can’t handle their case themselves, either because of literacy issues or the case is too complex, Long said the staff refers people to a list of attorneys in the area, some of whom are willing to represent clients for free or at a reduced cost. One such pro bono attorney is Vicky Kimbrell, who leads the family law unit for Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit serving low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta. Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves a similar clientele within the five-county metro Atlanta area.
“Pro se” or self-representation is better suited to uncontested divorces, said Kimbrell. “It works best when you have some agreed-upon structure, and when you file the divorce, both parties can agree and sign acknowledgments. People can walk through that pretty simply.”
The website of the Judicial Council provides comprehensive legal packets for divorces with and without children, and includes eight videos that explain how to complete the complex child support calculator worksheets.
“In a disputed custody case, that’s not enough,” said Kimbrell, who also serves on the Judicial Council’s Access to Justice committee and has helped to develop self-help resources for family law cases, including uniform legal forms for divorce that are accepted in courts statewide.
“If you’ve got a couple of kids or a house, it gets really complicated. If your husband has a lawyer and you don’t, and you’re standing in court, and whether or not you get custody of your kids depends on how you can maneuver this court process, that’s a scary place to be,” she said, advising people to seek out pro bono or low bono counsel in those cases.
People who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking and who need a temporary protective order (TPO) should call one of the legal aid programs or the domestic violence hotline, said Kimbrell. “It’s pretty dangerous to file your own TPO, and these are the kinds of cases that we prioritize.”
|SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS IN GEORGIA|
|More than 1 million Georgia residents represent themselves in civil and criminal courts
each year. Here’s the breakdown of self-represented litigants in Georgia courts in 2021.
|Source: Judicial Council of Georgia|
Kimbrell noted that legal aid organizations take on clients with household incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $29,160 for an individual and $49,720 for a family of three. Cobb County Magistrate Judge Tabitha Ponder, who also serves as staff attorney for the Georgia Judicial Council’s Access to Justice Committee, advises people to “try using free legal resources first, before making a decision to represent yourself.”
She said self-represented litigants do well in small claims court, where they often face other pro se parties. But she considers them at a disadvantage when trying a case against someone who has a lawyer. That distinction is most notable in dispossessory cases, she said.
“Most landlords are represented by counsel,” she said. “And I would say 90 to 95% of the tenants are not represented. And sometimes, sitting on the bench, I see they have legal arguments they can make, and there are some things they may be entitled to, but as a judge, our hands are tied; we can’t give advice from the bench. And this is important for folks who are facing evictions because our eviction process is really quick.”
In Cobb County, tenants fending for themselves can take advantage of mediators and free legal aid attorneys who are always present in the courtroom during eviction cases.
“We’ve got a person there to speak with both parties and see if they can work out an agreement,” said Ponder. “And the [tenants] can get some sound legal advice. So that’s extremely helpful. What I’ve found with self-represented litigants is that most of the time, these folks don’t require a lawyer to represent them in person. They just need some advice and some resources to help them … it’s usually just one or two issues or questions on a form that they struggle with.”
Lawyers offering “limited scope” or “unbundled” services who are willing to take on just the part of a case that a person can’t handle for themselves can be the key to success or failure for a pro se litigant, she said. “Unbundling really works, and it’s something we need to see more support for statewide.”
Cobb County also offers a free monthly family law workshop via Zoom covering divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation. The workshop is mandatory for self-represented litigants, who can ask a family law attorney general questions via the chat, and have the option afterward to pay $100 for a 1.5-hour consultation with an attorney.
Other sources of support include:
- The Cobb Second Chance Desk helps individuals with a criminal history who may be eligible to restrict and seal their record.
- The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) helps people with record restrictions and pardons, offering free online workshops on how to clear criminal history. It also regularly runs free on-site legal clinics at law libraries and justice centers around Georgia.
- The Fulton County Probate Information Center helps Fulton residents understand how to manage a deceased family member’s estate with free 30-minute consultations with a probate attorney. The Council of Probate Court Judges is a statewide resource offering dozens of standard forms for common probate issues in Georgia, as well as how-to videos and guidance on guardianship for minors and adults.
In Macon, the Middle Georgia Justice Center serves people in Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford, Monroe, Jones, and Twiggs counties. It handles heirs’ property, probate, property, guardianship matters, divorce, legitimation, criminal history relief, as well as ID card and driver’s license issues.
The center helps people whose income is up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $43,740 for one person and $74,580 for a family of three. People apply for legal aid online or in person, and then learn if they’ll receive support to use the center’s self-help resources, direct representation by a staff attorney or a referral to a pro bono or low bono lawyer. The center has expanded from three to six full-time employees this year with more than $500,000 in funding from corporate grants, local donors and federal funds.
Ponder said the Access to Justice committee has just completed a new set of uniform landlord-tenant forms and how-to videos that should make it easier for people to represent themselves. They’ll be posted once approved by the Magistrate Court Council later this year. Their next project is legitimation forms that can be accepted in any Georgia court.
And the committee is currently working with Georgia Legal Services Program to create kiosks offering printable legal forms and instructions that will be placed in seven to 10 courthouses and self-help centers “strategically around the state, in legal deserts,” said Ponder.
“I’m a firm believer that when people have the right resources, they can have success with any kind of case,” she said.
SELF-HELP, FREE AND LOW-COST LEGAL RESOURCES IN GEORGIA
JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIA – Free forms, instructions and how-to videos on family law and landlord-tenant law and a list of Georgia’s legal self-help centers.
GEORGIA LEGAL AID – Offers dozens of free forms, guides and resources to handle legal issues.
GEORGIA LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM – Nonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta.
ATLANTA LEGAL AID SOCIETY – Nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters for low- and moderate-income people across metro Atlanta.
STATE BAR OF GEORGIA – Find an attorney. Tip: Use pricing filter to select limited scope, pro bono, fixed price, etc.
COUNCIL OF MAGISTRATE COURT JUDGES – Free forms generator guides you through questions to create free, customized forms to take to the Magistrate Court.
COUNCIL OF PROBATE JUDGES OF GEORGIA – Offers statewide standard forms and how-to videos for common probate issues, including wills, estates, and guardianship for minors and adults.
GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT – Free resources and attorneys to help people with clearing criminal records, obtaining pardons and early termination from probation.
GEORGIA COALITION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Information on finding a shelter, finding a lawyer, how to be safe in court.
24-HOUR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE IN GA – 1-800-334-2836
Calls to the hotline are automatically connected to the caller’s nearest Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified shelter.
GEORGIA SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS’ COOPERATIVE AUTHORITY – Free standard statewide forms on family violence, protective orders.
Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: The Georgia Supreme Court (Credit: Joy Walstrum)