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Sewage spill halts shellfish harvesting in Delaware Bay

John Lee


In response to a massive sewage spill, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) is temporarily halting shellfish harvesting in the Delaware Bay.


While Kent County Public Works was conducting emergency repairs near Postlethwait Middle School, a back-up occurred, affecting a sewage pump station in Dover, which then discharged hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater into the St. Jones River. This prompted concerns because the river empties into the Delaware Bay, where licensed fishermen can harvest oysters, clams and mussels commercially and recreationally.


State environmental scientist Michael Bott said the spill has stopped, but federal guidelines require the state to suspend all oyster, clam and mussel harvests for 21 days.


“Those species are filter feeders, so they can actually accumulate what is in the water column, unlike crabs, conch or fish,” Bott said, 


Since filter feeders strain particles from the water, Bott said the spill is a public health concern. If a fisherman caught an oyster in a contaminated portion of the bay, they could potentially put contaminated shellfish on the market.


Leonard “Limbo” Voss, the chairman of the Advisory Council on Shell Fisheries, catches clams as bycatch. He said it’s not prime harvest season for shellfish, but the temporary halt was the right thing to do, especially since fishermen are allowed to harvest only 65 bushels each this year.


“They realize that when you have a quota that small, you have to get as much as you can out of it,” Voss said, “and anything that jeopardizes that needs to be avoided.”


As a result of the spill, DNREC has ordered Kent County Public Works to closely monitor the river for bacteria and organics until the water quality improves.


DNREC's order can be found here.