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DNREC taking more aquaculture applications, but could bay bacteria hold people back?

John Lee

Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, starting Dec. 5, will again accept applications from people who want to farm oysters and clams in Delaware’s Inland Bays. But most of the available acres are near an area the state has been warning aquaculture enthusiasts about.

Fifty-eight people vied for 343 acres open to shellfish farming in the bays at a lottery in May. According to a map of the aquaculture leases, about 30 remain unclaimed in Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay has almost 90 acres left.

Thirty-four of the 58 people selected acres and 24 people decided not to take part in the program, but there’s no clear reason why they dropped out, said John Ewart, an aquaculture specialist at the University of Delaware’s Delaware Sea Grant. 

“Everyone who participated had an option of dropping out,” Ewart said. “People did that. They realized what was entailed to follow through was not something they wanted to spend the time and effort for.”

Participating in the program comes with some financial responsibilities, like application fees, equipment and bond insurance. But aside from the responsibilities, the state, in May, also warned people of bacteria in the Indian River Bay near the 90 acres  — a possible why they’re still open. 

“I think people are cautious about whether they want to select anything there because of the fact that down the road three to five years if they get their farm set up and established everything working well and then the classification status changes, it could be really devastating for their business,” Ewart said.

An August Freedom of Information Act request to DNREC’s Watershed Assessment Section for Indian River Bay water quality reports revealed DNREC started testing for fecal coliform, a type of bacteria, in mid-2016 in the Inland Bays. 

The division, in an email to Delaware Public Media, said “it appears that there is higher variability in the upper Indian River area, which contained the proposed aquaculture SADA (Shellfish Aquaculture Development Areas). Historically this area of the Indian River Bay was prohibited for shellfish harvesting and if the Fecal Coliform method is adopted, once a sufficient amount of data has been collected, this area may be reclassified to ‘Prohibited’.”

In an interview with Delaware Public Media in August, Michael Bott, an environmental scientist with DNREC’s Shellfish and Recreational Water Program, said the bacteria near the aquaculture plots come from animal feces.

“We’re just providing a warning to let growers know that any time there’s a different method there’s a possibility there could be changes in classifications,” Bott said in August.

So far, one person — Wilmington resident Mark Casey —  has reserved two acre plots in the Indian River Bay, and he says he’s not worried about bacteria shutting down his future nursery. He says he still believes it’s a great place to grow seeds because of algae blooms in the bay.

“What do the oysters eat? The algae bloom. Why do I want to grow my babies there? I want to grow them where there’s the most food, and algae is their food,” Casey said.

Casey has already submitted a permit application to the state to grow oyster spat and seed next spring.

“There’s no science that the growth is going to be different there,” Casey said.

People who want to grow oysters and clams in the Inland Bays need a permit, insurance and their own equipment. The application fee is $300 and people will have to pay $100 per acre per year. People can farm hard clams only in the Little Assawoman Bay, and oysters only in Rehoboth and Indian River bays. Additional guidelines can be found here.

DNREC starts accepting lease applications for shellfish aquaculture again Dec. 5 on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the department.

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