It’s been a year since people got to discuss their feelings on proposed commercial oyster-growing in the area. Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has questioned the appropriateness of Delaware’s proposed sites for future shellfish aquaculture.
The Corps is still reviewing Delaware’s permit application for 442 one-acre plots for aquaculture in the inland bays, and 5 percent of that has caused most of the uproar, which the Corps appears to have heard loud and clear.
In 2014, Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC) included 24 acres on the shallow seabed of Beach Cove, a nearly enclosed body of water in the far southeast of the Indian River Bay.
Neighboring residents fought back, forming the Coalition to Save Beach Cove, donating volunteer hours and “six figures” worth of donations to hire scientific consultants to get Beach Cove off the aquaculture list.
Although things are quiet publicly, the Corps had met with DNREC in the summer of 2015 to explain its preliminary position:
“At that time, we were proposing to delete a portion of the sites in Beach Cove from our proposed regional review process at the federal level,” Corps biologist Ed Bonner told the Coastal Point. “Our position is based upon our consideration of public comments, to maintain vessel access across Beach Cove in an area identified as an uncharted channel reportedly used by the local community to travel between the west side of Beach Cove and the east side of Beach Cove.”
Since that meeting, “the State has been working to resolve internal issues related to the issuance of the State leases,” Bonner added.
“DNREC has worked with stakeholders to refine the areas where shellfish aquaculture leases will be focused,” DNREC spokesperson Michael Globetti told the Coastal Point.
DNREC still has one more step in the regulatory process — the statewide activity approval, which is like a state-level version of the Corps’ general permit. Secretary David Small said he hoped DNREC would be doing that in early 2016.
“We may apply that state general permit to a subset of that larger universe of sites that have been adopted by regulation,” Small told the Coastal Point in December.
So, even if the Corps approves all proposed sites, DNREC could choose to just focus on certain areas and avoid other zones.
The location of these areas will be announced in the form of a request from the Division of Fish & Wildlife to DNREC’s Division of Water to develop a Statewide Activity Approval (SAA) for shellfish aquaculture in designated subaqueous lands.
After going through a public-comment period, the SAA “will streamline and expedite permit review in designated aquaculture areas, while allowing comprehensive review by the Division of Fish & Wildlife,” Globetti stated.
Officially, no sites have been fully approved or rejected. No agency has announced a timeframe for a final decision.
In October, the Delaware Speaker of the House hinted that locals will be happier with the end results.
“We will get it right” before it goes into play, state Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-14) had said. “The [sites] that are controversial will not be controversial anymore.”
“That’s the goal,” Small had clarified, not making any promises.
It’s been a year since public comments were due to the Army Corps Philadelphia District, in February of 2015.
“I can’t give you lot of detail, other than to say we have discretion to determine which of those sites [are developed first],” Small said in December. “[We will] look at those to say, ‘OK — we know there’s been concern from some residents. Are there places that we want to focus on, at least initially, to see how this market develops?’”
Bonner said he has not heard if DNREC is planning further modifications to the proposed aquaculture program.
“At this point, we are still waiting for the State, and there is no timeframe for a decision on this matter by our office,” Bonner stated.
At the edges of Beach Cove, residents of the housing developments haven’t heard of any Corps updates, but they have been sending information to the decision-makers.
“We’ve had ongoing communication with DNREC and the Secretary, just continue to encourage them to not allow the aquaculture in Beach Cove and continuing to explain why,” said James P. bond, chair of Cotton Patch Hills’ Save Beach Cove Committee. “I think they’ve been receptive and understanding.”
Those eight different communities aren’t against aquaculture in general, but they have presented personal and scientific reasons as to why Beach Cove shouldn’t be included.
Ultimately, Bond said, they’re confident that “the right decision” will be made.
With a unanimous vote in 2013, the Delaware state legislature instructed DNREC to create a commercial shellfish aquaculture industry. Since the public outcry, some legislators said they wouldn’t have voted for the aquaculture sites if they’d known how unpopular some of the locations would be.
But the specific sites hadn’t been identified before the vote, as the legislature itself, through that vote, was instructing DNREC to determine the sites, leasing process and other regulations.
Technically, when the DNREC process is complete, fishermen could still request to develop aquaculture beds anywhere in Delaware, but that’s a much more rigorous permitting process than with the pre-approved sites.
“Any proposed aquaculture activity outside the designated areas will require a comprehensive review by the Division of Water and Division of Fish & Wildlife, and would require an individual permit, rather than an expedited SAA,” Globetti stated.
Ultimately, Small said, the aquaculture farmers’ success will depend on a little of everything: the weather, skill level, efforts, investment and much more.
“I think the potential is there to be economically viable,” Small said in December.
Details about DNREC’s aquaculture proposal and process are online at www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries/Pages/ShellfishAquaculture.aspx.