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For shellfish enthusiasts, state aquaculture program brings triumph, concerns

John Lee

Delaware shellfish enthusiasts are a step closer to raising oysters and clams locally. A lottery will be held in early May for watermen interested in securing spots to raise shellfish in the Inland Bays.


It’s taken the state years to get to this point and Delaware Public Media’s Katie Peikes explains why.




In 2003, the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays used a grant to launch an oyster gardening program in Lewes. 


John Ewart, an aquaculture specialist with the University of Delaware, said the program was an effort to bring oyster populations up to clean the waters, not put them on the market. It now has 70 oyster gardening locations in the Inland Bays and UD provides the center with spat.


“We’re able to get mature oyster larvae from the Rutgers Hatchery across the bay and we have a pile of recycled shell here and get it all set up in the tank and flood it with aerated seawater,” Ewart said. “When the larvae are mature and ready to set, we flood the tank with larvae and they attach themselves to the shell.”


The program’s success led to a new question: Is commercial shellfish aquaculture feasible in the Inland Bays?


In 2013, Ewart and others pushed the state to allow for commercial harvesting. Regulations were put into place in 2014. 


But the actual launch of commercial harvesting has stalled for 3 years, delayed by concerns from a number of nearby homeowners and a lengthy Army Corps of Engineers permitting process.


One of the groups that opposes the regulations is the Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay. Their original concern was the number of sites - 118 acres worth. 


“They were being placed right in the area where most of the recreation on the bay takes place in the shore,” said Diane Maddex, the founder of the group.


Maddex said the coalition is relieved the acres available have been lowered to 43, But another concern remains: Pipes sticking five feet out of the water to identify clam plots, are what opponents call an eyesore. Maddex said these markings are unnecessary, since the bay has been restricted to hard clams only.


“If you’re growing oysters, they grow in wire cages and they float in the waterline,” Maddex said. “So to keep people from bumping into the cages, that’s why [state officials] wanted to put these pole markers on each one acre plot.”


But hard clams are grown on the bottom of water in nets, and Maddex said they don’t need poles or pipes to show where they are.


Maddex said the coalition has asked the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to change the regulations, but legislators would have to amend the existing law. They have not heard back from DNREC yet, possibly because the state was eager to get the program going, Maddex said.


DNREC will hold a leasing lottery for shellfish enthusiasts on May 2, where they’ll draw names from a pool until there are no more acres left in the Inland Bays. But some shellfish enthusiasts are concerned about the unknown probability they have of getting a lease.


Steven Friend is the owner of Friends Clams in Georgetown, which buys and sells non-locally grown clams.  He said he has been waiting to farm hard clams and oysters for a while and is excited for Delaware’s program to get started. But he still needs a permit, a bond letter and liability insurance, as the state requires all permit-holders to purchase. 


And Friend worries people who have been committed to shellfish farming since before the legislation was passed, won’t get leases through the lottery.


“Anybody in the public out here can go ahead and do it, and it’s holding up us that really want to do the job, you know what I’m saying,” Friend said.


Friend is worried about the cost of liability insurance and a bond letter that all permit-holders are required to have. 


It can take at least two years to grow oysters, so Friend said he’s concerned many hobbyists may have to wait longer than they think to see results.


"I'm glad another step has come to pass," Friend said. "We're not gonna be able to grow oysters this year because we can't get no seed and if we did get seed, it's passed the time of putting them out. The mortality would be a lot greater than if we had put them out in the first of March."


Friend said he hopes next March, aquaculturalists will be able to plant their seeds. He has already spent more than $70,000 on equipment and has 185 cages ready to go into Rehoboth and Little Assawoman Bays.


DNREC did not respond to questions about how many leases are available or how many people have submitted paperwork for the lottery so far, by the time of publication. Last winter, former DNREC Secretary David Small said up to 70 participants could lease five acres each. 


And once the leases are awarded, Chris Bason, the director for the Center for the Inland Bays, expects the program to benefit Sussex County significantly.


“It’s a brand new industry for Delaware that really hits the sweet spot where the farms are cleaning up the water while they’re providing jobs and putting local seafoods on people's table,” Bason said.


It’s an industry that could potentially be worth more than $5 million in wholesale value, aquaculture specialist John Ewart said. 


And as Delaware is the last state on the east coast to have an aquaculture program, Ewart said the state could look to Rhode Island as a model. 


Twenty years ago, Rhode Island was just starting a statewide aquaculture program. Their 2016 aquaculture industry report shows there are 70 aquaculture farms throughout the state, up from 61 in 2015. The state sold more than 7,800,00 oysters on the market. In 1999, they sold just over 600,000.


“It’s important to just get into the business right the first time because it requires a substantial investment," Ewart said. "A lot of people really don’t have the opportunity for a second chance if they make big mistakes.”

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