Watermen, public: Bay not ready for full-scale aquaculture

It’s up for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) to decide, but many stakeholders have said that conversation needs to continue before aquaculture begins full-time in Little Assawoman Bay.

At a June 8 public hearing in Millville, the public commented on the next step in commercial shellfish aquaculture for Delaware’s Inland Bays. The Wetlands & Subaqueous Lands Section is considering the Statewide Activity Approval (SAA) to allow an expedited permitting process for aquaculture in the Little Assawoman Bay, Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay.

The state legislature passed the initial shellfish aquaculture bill in 2013, seeing a chance to create economic growth and help clean the bays (as oysters are believed to filter excess nutrients). DNREC was instructed to write regulations and pick development sites (442 one-acre sites originally).

After the regulations passed, public outcry caused DNREC to remove about 100 sites from the SAA expedited process, including Beach Cove and parts of the Little Assawoman Bay.

But that doesn’t forbid aquaculture in those zones. Watermen could still request permits. So several people requested the final step in officially forbidding aquaculture in those zones.

Many people said they wanted DNREC to create an advisory committee. Residents and local business representatives said they felt left out during the first half of the aquaculture talks. In the past year, watermen said they, too, have felt ignored.

“If you’re gonna get something done, you have to get everyone involved,” said clammer Steve Friend.

“Several thousand residents were left out of the public process,” said Diane Maddex, a resident representing the Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay, which itself represents eight communities on both sides of the bay. “Numerous concerns about the impact … remain to be resolved.”

“For those of us lucky enough to live along the inland bays, it is our responsibility to protect the inland bays,” said Sally Ford of the Seatowne community, describing her initial “shock” at discovering the industrial activity that she said seems inconsistent with DNREC’s mandate to protect natural habitat.

Joann Hess said she had safety concerns. The Assawoman shallows are perfect for novice kayakers, away from waves and large boats, he said, and forcing them to paddle deeper, around shellfish sites, would be akin to putting novice skiers on a triple-black-diamond course.

“I don’t care how many poles you have, that child or that elderly person is hitting it,” said Hess, a mother of three.

“When I first heard about this, I tried really hard to find the pros in it,” Hess said. “I think the water quality needs to be improved. I don’t think aquaculture can do it. … I haven’t found one conclusive study that oyster farming will clean up water in the inland bays.”

Also calling herself “pro-business,” Hess said, “I believe in allowing commercial fishermen to fish and to do this, but where they’re proposing to do it, there’s no evidence it’ll be successful in 18 inches to 2 feet of water,” where shellfish could freeze, she said.

If there’s proof of success, “Let’s do it,” said Hess. Otherwise, why risk the tourism industry for a small impact from aquaculture?

Some urged officials to consider the garbage hauled from the bay after Hurricane Sandy, and then imagine if the shellfish cages washed up on top of that.

“It’s not gonna help the environment any more than it’s gonna hurt it,” especially when the one site is right in the middle of the geese migration grounds, said lifetime resident Ethan Kleinstuber.

Many people said DNREC hasn’t met its own guidelines for vetting such a program, in several areas: environmental impacts; turbidity and surface water quality; air quality, such as noise and odors; recreational uses; and public access.

“They didn’t know about the recreational activities because they didn’t ask us, the only low-impact [business on the bay],” said Jenifer Adams-Mitchell, longtime owner of Coastal Kayak. “Thank goodness tourists don’t have such a hard time finding us.”

“This application does not even meet the same criteria Seatowne met for private docks and wetlands restoration,” said resident Fred Wetzelberger.

He also scorned the potential noise and visual pollution from aquaculture, as well as the erosion from motorboat wakes, which he said would “continue the degradation of our 20 feet of privately-owned wetlands” and restoration project.

The fishermen

Even commercial fishermen said they had concerns with the Little Assawoman. That is the only place DNREC will allow clam cages, which is inconvenient to Steve Friend, a lifetime local currently harvesting wild clams in the Rehoboth Bay.

“I know what it is to be out there in the cold,” said Friend, describing the hoops watermen will jump through, between bonding and surveying, to get cages in the water.

He wants to farm, he said, but he wants DNREC to road-test aquaculture on just a few sites before rolling it out elsewhere.

“DNREC has got a long ways to go with getting this right,” Friend said. “You people really don’t realize what we have to go to just to start. I’ve got $60,000 tied up, and … I haven’t made a penny.”

Some people said they had a hard time accepting the 10-foot PVC markers required for each corner of each acre of aquaculture site. It’s a far cry from what people imagined after the Center for the Inland Bays’ small-scale dockside oyster-growing program, they said.

Dennis Klinzing brought his own visual aid, a 10-foot-long pole, 6 inches in diameter, insisting “172 of these PVC pipes should not be driven into subaqueous lands.”

Floating markers and other alternatives were suggested.

Interested in shellfishing, E.J. Chalabala suggested the 20-foot navigation lanes between each acre be eliminated completely. In response to a photo someone had found on the internet of a PVC-strewn shellfishing ground, Chalabala said, “I certainly wouldn’t have all those poles in the ground.”

Also, with some aquaculture sites being removed from the SAA process, “I would like to see that comparable acreage put back somewhere. You can’t have [those] acres taken off and not put back,” said Chalabala.

The politicians and the CIB

State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-Ocean View) said he still thinks a Delaware oyster industry would be great. But there are kinks to comb out, such as limiting the Little Assawoman to clamming only.

Hocker has asked DNREC to take 60 days to redo the SAA to better reflect public concerns. If the regulations aren’t changed, Hocker said he has drafted a law forbidding PVC markers in the aquaculture zone. But legislating against DNREC won’t be a pleasant route, he acknowledged.

“I will fight to make sure all the concerns I’ve been working on since the bill passed are corrected,” Hocker said, adding that it would have been easier if legislators had heard public complaints during legislative committee hearings.

“It was published, just like every other one,” Hocker said of the legislation’s public notice. “I’m sorry that you didn’t know about it. … It was advertised. I wish you were there.”

Steve Callanen said he was still frustrated about the seeming lack of public notification, from Center for Inland Bays exploratory team to DNREC’s own wintertime public meetings, held in Lewes, about 20 miles from Bethany Beach.

“I don’t think it was intentional that a lot of the information came out in winter, when a lot of folks weren’t here,” said state Rep. Ron Gray (R-Selbyville). “We worked with communities to reduce a lot of [the proposed aquaculture zones] in size.”

Gray said he believes the people will be heard, and he invited anyone with concerns to continue contacting him.

Chalabala said some of the CIB’s initial meetings weren’t broadcast to the public in order to get the bill written and work done.

Last to speak was Chris Bason, executive director of the CIB itself.

“We need the opportunity for aquaculturists to get out in the bays. … Aquaculture is a great way to get the nutrients that are in the water out of there,” he said, as well as to provide wildlife habitat.

“For reasons that we don’t understand — the science is not behind this — DNREC limited hard-clam aquaculture to Little Assawoman Bay,” Bason said. “We showed that it should be in all the bays … to give aquaculturists the most chance to get started in a very expensive business.”

According to Bason, experts say that shellfishing plots should be more spread out, not bunched together in one or two sites per bay. He said he hopes DNREC will offer more variety and give young Delawareans the chance to get jobs on the water, providing local seafood.

He said the SAA does meet requirements of the Comprehensive Conservation & Management Plan (CCMP) for Delaware’s Inland Bays.

Delaware aquaculture information is online at www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries/Pages/ShellfishAquaculture.aspx.