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Is there a middle ground for shellfish farming in Little Assawoman Bay?

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Chris Bason
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Delaware Center for the Inland Bays
Sunset on Little Assawoman Bay

 

Delaware’s shellfish farming program has seen a lot of changes since lawmakers approved its creation in 2013. And in December, the state took a major step toward finally launching the industry here this spring when it adopted a process to approve leases for areas available for farming.

Still, some people still felt their issues with the program hadn’t been fully heard.

A bill was recently introduced to ensure changes being made to Delaware’s shellfish farming program in Little Assawoman Bay to address nearby homeowners' concerns are permanent. 

Delaware Center for the Inland Bays Director Chris Bason stood at the edge of the Little Assawoman Bay just south of South Bethany. He pointed in the distance to where 43 acres of hard clam farming will be in two sections of the water when watermen begin raising shellfish next year.

 

“Hard clams are farmed underwater, so you’d see some buoys out there, maybe if you got a real blow-out tide you might see some of the clams,” Bason said. “Clams are laid on bottom and in industry standard practices you have netting that goes over the clams to keep them in place. You’d see a boat pull up to tend the farms, people setting clams, harvesting, managing the plots to make sure they’re healthy.”

 

Even with a little bit of rain and cloudy skies, the bay on this day is peaceful. But some homeowners along the shoreline worry shellfish farming could change the serene way of life they enjoy, and recreation on the bay. 

 

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Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
The Little Assawoman Bay as seen on Thursday, May 11.

One of those homeowners is Diane Maddex, co-founder of the Coalition for the Little Assawoman Bay. She’s lived in Waters Edge for 15 years.

 

“I love the water. I love the ocean, and the bay actually, to me, is more interesting than the ocean is anymore," Maddex said. "There’s a lot of bird life there, there’s beautiful moods, it depends on the time of day and the tides and the winds." 

 

Maddex and Jack Neylan, another property-owner along the bay, formed the coalition in September 2014, after they found out about the passing of the state’s aquaculture bill. Neylan said they were taken by surprise. 

 

“I don’t think any of us are opposed to aquaculture in that bay. We’re opposed to the way DNREC implemented it,” Neylan said.

 

As homeowners, they wanted more notification in the process and what’s going on near their homes, Neylan said.

 

The state initially wanted to put long poles in the bay that would stick several feet out of the water, identifying acre plots. Maddex said she worried these poles would have been an “eyesore” for people living near the bay and would also interfere with people kayaking.

 

Maddex, Neylan and Ross Cropper, another member of the coalition, visited Legislative Hall on Wednesday for a committee hearing on SB 77, a bill that would resolve some of their concerns. 

 

The bill ensures pole markers in the bay identifying acre plots would be replaced with buoys. It also limits shellfish farming in the bay to hard clams only - which was already part of Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control regulations passed in December. 

 

"When that possibility came up, we thought that was a good compromise to do that because it would be less destructive especially to all the recreationalists who are out in the bay - all the kayakers, the stand-up paddle-boarders who wanted to use the bay," Maddex said. "We were so worried about the safety of kids especially banging into oyster cages."

 

A third thing the bill does is limit where watermen can farm clams. 

 

Coalition members, Chris Bason and DNREC see these three points as a compromise - and the bill as a way to ensure that compromise has the force of state law behind it. But there is a downside to that, Bason said.

 

“It appeases that particular stakeholder group, while at the same time it makes it harder for the potential oyster farmer or clam farmer to get out there and make a go of it and have a successful business,” Bason said, “so it will impact the economic and environmental benefits of aquaculture.” 

 

Shellfish enthusiasts who had already reserved acre plots in the Little Assawoman Bay were contacted, but none returned calls by the time of publication.

 

If the compromise becomes law, the 43 acres available in the Little Assawoman Bay will be kept where they are, in two sections of the bay. Bason said he worries that could further limit participation in the program - and its potential to help clean the bays and have local clams on the market. 

 

“Certainly, there are other acres in that bay that might be even more suitable for farming and have great environmental benefit and I think those should be left on the table,” Bason said.

 

Before acres were taken out in former DNREC Sec. David Small’s order in December 2016, the Little Assawoman Bay had 118 acres available for farming. It was reduced by 75 acres to 43 - a 64 percent reduction. 

 

Despite the reduction, Bason said the fact that there still will be aquaculture in the Little Assawoman Bay will help make a difference. Hard clams are filter feeders, and pass water over their gills to get their food, filtering the water.

 

“Those farms act as filtration plants,” said Bason, referring to the acres. “Hard clams take nutrients out of the water, and we have too many nutrients in the water, causing algae blooms and oxygen levels to drop.”

 

Even if shellfish enthusiasts have less acres to choose from, each acre will help the bay. DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said he hasn’t heard any concerns from watermen about the number of acres currently available in the bay, and he believes for the people who live near the bay or use it regularly, the bill make sense.

 

Shellfish enthusiasts are now selecting their plots through a lottery process. Acres in the Little Assawoman Bay are going fast and one-third of the available acres have been taken as of Thursday. Those leases are now “pending,” which Fisheries Administrator John Clark said means the applicant must submit a leasing application before they can start growing hard clams there. 

 

“I suspect as that process goes through, if there’s more demand than supply, probably we'll have further conversations,” Garvin said. 

 

For now, Garvin said, the shellfish aquaculture industry is on track for its long-awaited start.

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