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New entrants to aquaculture industry see potential for strong growth after COVID-19

John Lee

Delaware has spent nearly a decade trying to get its aquaculture industry off the ground, but optimism remains that it will take off.

Contributor Jon Hurdle updates where the industry is now and where it’s headed.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Jon Hurdle discuss Delaware's aquaculture industry.

Delaware’s fledgling aquaculture industry has the potential for strong growth post-Covid if it’s aided by more commercial docks and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, some of its new entrants said Wednesday.

At an online forum hosted by aquaculture specialists from the University of Delaware and Delaware Sea Grant, the principals of two businesses that raise shellfish and finfish in controlled environments said they have done well this year despite the severe challenges posed by the pandemic, and predicted that the industry has room for much more growth.

“If we just had the infrastructure, we would just explode,” said David Beebe of Rehoboth Bay Oyster Company. “The demand is just overwhelming.”

Beebe and his business partner Daniel Fosnocht raise oysters in an area of the Inland Bays that is leased by the state as part of a revived effort to kickstart the aquaculture industry.

"If we just had the infrastructure, we would just explode. The demand is just overwhelming."
David Beebe, Rehoboth Bay Oyster Company

Delaware now has about 11 business groups farming shellfish in the Inland Bays, most of whom started up in 2018 or 2019, according to Ed Hale, a professor at UD’s School of Marine and Science Policy, and a co-host of the forum. The event, which attracted about 35 online participants, was designed to showcase two of the industry’s successful startups, and to discuss its challenges and rewards, Hale said.

The industry first received official state backing in 2013 when then-Gov. Jack Markell signed a law that authorized the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental control to oversee its development and manage lease areas in the Inland Bays.

Its early growth was held back by state and federal permitting delays, and opposition from some coastal landowners, but it now seems poised for stronger gains, participants said.

“I would say there’s a great future in aquaculture whether it’s growing lettuce or growing oysters in the bay, or some kind of fish aquaculture,” said Fosnocht. “People like a local product, they like to know where it came from, who grew it, they are all about that tracability.”

Dr. Ed Hale
Delaware Sea Grant
Delaware's aquaculture industry is growing, but still lags behind neighboring states.

But Beebe argued that growth could be much stronger if the state provided more commercial docks to allow companies like his to land their boats in different locations from the places that mostly serve recreational boaters.

The industry’s advocates point also to its economic potential, citing the much larger number of aquaculture businesses that have sprung up in neighboring states. In New Jersey, the oyster industry was restarted in the late 1990s and grew by 2016 to 19 farms raising 2 million oysters valued at $1.37 million, said Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for Inland Bays. In Maryland, the shellfish industry in 2018 generated about $8 million in revenue and supported more than 130 jobs, according to data from Virginia Tech.

By contrast, Delaware’s industry at the end of 2019 consisted of just four growers and 10 commercial leases over 51 acres in the Inland Bays, according to a report from DNREC. It said there was just a “modest” increase in the number of leases and the number of shellfish planted and harvested, compared with 2018.

The department has created Shellfish Aquaculture Development Areas in Rehoboth and Indian River Bays as well as Little Assawoman Bay. It doesn’t restrict aquaculture farms to the Development Areas, but requires a longer permitting process for any businesses that want to set up outside the areas.

"It's one of the best things we can be doing for the health of the bay. It is a truly green industry because it's supporting new jobs that have high economic throughput."
Chris Bason, Center for the Inland Bays

In addition to its economic potential, the industry earns a high environmental grade because oysters filter out contaminants in the water, particularly nutrients like phosphorus that contribute to harmful algal blooms during the summer months, said Bason of the Center for the Inland Bays.

“It’s one of the best things we can be doing for the health of the bay,” he said. “It is a truly green industry because it’s supporting new jobs that have high economic throughput – you have to buy a lot of local equipment to operate. You’re selling to local restaurants, and it has wonderful environmental impacts.”

Before beginning their aquaculture business, Beebe said he and Fosnocht both worked in the hotel industry, and had no experience that would have qualified them to begin farming oysters.

“Dan and I both grew up on the Inland Bays, so we’re very familiar with the area, and we’ve fished and clammed and done a lot of stuff but we had no practical experience in anything remotely like aquaculture,” he said.

“We both had primarily seasonal jobs, and we had a lot of time free in the winter, so it just sounded like something that would fit in with our interests,” he said.

Fosnocht, who worked in the hotel business since the late 1990s, said he loved to be out on the water and recognized the environmental benefits of his new profession. “I’m glad to be doing it, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” he said.

Credit Mark Jolly-Van Bodegraven
Delaware Sea Grant
Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service agent Ed Hale (right) and Mark Casey of Delaware Cultured Seafood examine Casey’s oysters in Indian River Bay.

They raise oysters in floating and bottom cages on the five acres of Inland Bays that they have leased, and they have been learning as they go.

It’s just a lot of trial by error,” Beebe said. “Thank God for YouTube and the experience of people all over the East Coast. You learn what works, you think what works, and then it doesn’t work and then you improvise. It’s still fun but it’s a lot of work.”

Despite their self-effacing claims, the business has done well, especially because it includes a retail operation which has meant that they don’t need to sell oysters through a wholesaler, he said.

Part of the brighter outlook, said Douglas Wood, owner of 302Aquaponics in Dover, is that consumers are increasingly demanding fresh, locally grown food that’s raised in a contaminant-free environment. Wood, who raises finfish like tilapia, and hydroponic lettuces at his farm, said there’s no need to fly lettuces from distant locations like California when they can be grown and eaten a lot fresher in Delaware.

Although independent food retailers in Delaware are generally receptive to selling his products, Wood said it’s a lot harder to get into supermarket chains like Acme. “It’s a leap of faith for a big company to buy from a little guy like me,” he said.

Wood, a former special education teacher, said he too had no experience that prepared him to start a business in aquaculture, but was confident enough to have made it work.

He said his business has been “a little difficult” during the last 10 months of the pandemic but he’s glad he has been able to do business at all. “Tomorrow’s a new day,” he said. “I wipe out what happened yesterday, and forget about it.”