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Shellfish farmers left disgruntled as new permitting process begins to fall into place

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John Lee
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Delaware recently adopted a streamlined permitting process for shellfish farming leases, but some aquaculture enthusiasts feel their voices have not been heard.

 

Steven Friend owns Friends Clams LLC in Georgetown, where he distributes clams to buyers. A lifelong supporter of shellfish farming, he has 136 oyster cages ready to go.

 

But he still needs a permit, a bond letter, and liability insurance to farm under new state regulations.

 

“It’s really sad that we’re the last state on the whole east coast to get this going and yet we’re three-and-a-half years into it and we still haven’t grown the first oyster or clam,” Friend said.

 

Friend said he’s concerned because he’s already invested over $70,000 in his equipment while waiting for the go-ahead on shellfish farming.

 

“To get to that point, I mean it’s gonna cost a lot of money to do it and we just don’t know how far we have to go before we’re gonna get to grow that first oyster,” Friend said.

 

And Ted Nowakowski feels the same way, which is why he said he is not interested in Delaware’s shellfish aquaculture program. He lives in Rehoboth, but since he can’t farm in Delaware right now, he grows oysters on the eastern shore of Virginia.

Shellfish are filter feeders, meaning they can remove toxic nutrients from the water.

 

“At one time we had a thriving oyster business in Delaware, but of course disease wiped out the oysters,” Nowaski said. “It’s just taken so long to try to bring it back and when they bring it back, I feel they’ll just over-regulate it all."

 

Shellfish are particularly important because they are “filter feeders” and can remove toxic nutrients from the water. Just one acre of a shellfish farming lease could remove at least 700 pounds of toxic nutrients from the bays each year., said Chris Bason, the director of the Center for the Inland Bays.

 

The state legislature adopted commercial aquaculture law about three and a half years ago, making Delaware the last state on the east coast to have a program. In December, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control approved a general permitting process for people interested in farming. The regulations set aside just over 340 acres for people who want to grow oysters and hard clams. It also limits the harvest in Little Asswoman Bay to hard clams only.

 

But outgoing DNREC Secretary David Small said the state isn’t done yet. The Army Corps of Engineers is updating its five-year general permits for shellfish aquaculture leasing. They expect to be done this spring.

 

“Once those permits are reissued, then we can begin accepting lease applications to award leases through what we will hold as an initial lottery,” Small said. “So we’re one step closer and once the corps has done its work we’ll be able to start taking applications.”

Delawareans will be limited up to five acres each, but that may not be enough for some farmers. Nowakowski himself owns 150 acres in Virginia. He said generally, acres are priced at $1.50 to $2.00, a small number compared to what DNREC will charge aquaculturalists: $300 an acre, and a maximum of $1,500 for five acres.

Once the program gets going in the spring, Small said it’s possible that the allotted number of acres per person could be increased.

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