Citizens bring science to the table in effort to Save Beach Cove


Several months and thousands of dollars later, the people who oppose oyster aquaculture in Beach Cove finally have some hard data to support their claims.

As resident James P. Bond said, “The scientific reasons as to why this is a poor location are very convincing.”

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) made plans to allow 24 one-acre aquaculture plots on the seabed of Beach Cove, a nearly enclosed body of water in the far southeast of Indian River Bay. Currently under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the total proposal includes 442 one-acre plots in the Inland Bays.

The cove is so cherished that eight surrounding communities formed Save Beach Cove, a new coalition aiming to remove Beach Cove from the aquaculture list. Some of them aren’t even physically located adjacent to the cove.

“It’s not just the people surrounding Beach Cove that use Beach Cove,” said Bond, who lives in Cotton Patch Hills “People who boat in the Inland Bays know that Beach Cove is the place to go if you want to find a protected spot” to learn to sail or waterski.

People at the meeting were also concerned to imagine children sharing the water with metal cages.

The Indian River Bay was also the backdrop for a July 15 public meeting at the Ocean View VFW. Save Beach Cove invited the public to hear the results of an executive summary. The report covered data and conclusions previously published in two documents: a letter from the coalition’s legal counsel and expert Ed Launay’s environmental study from February.

The new Save Beach Cove coalition is doing everything it can to remove the small Bethany cove from consideration, even if they have to pay for it.

The cost of saving Beach Cove

“We’ve got the best legal counsel we could find,” Bond said.

But hiring the best means paying the most. Bills are coming in at up to $500 an hour, a resident said. Those costs would be significantly higher if not for potentially thousands of volunteer hours that citizens have given to the effort.

The coalition has raised “six figures” worth of donations from individuals and homeowner associations. They are encouraging others to donate to help save Beach Cove.

“This is very much a grassroots effort that brings together people from all backgrounds. … It’s been a public amazing effort,” Bond said. “People visit Delaware from all over the world. This is a treasure that people have come to love.”

He said nearly 800 people have signed an online petition, some from as far away as Africa. A car with Florida plates was seen sporting a “Save Beach Cove” bumper sticker.

But it’s a battle nonetheless, and the coalition has hired lawyers, in case it comes to litigation.

Opponents said the aquaculture plan has already had casualties. Resident Dave Green named a couple whose house reportedly failed to sell after the potential buyer learned of the drama involving Beach Cove. Nearby, another buyer reportedly needed persuading before consenting to sign the deed. The stories serve as a warning to those who don’t believe aquaculture could have an impact on property values, Green said.

How to get off the list

State Rep. Gerald Hocker Sr. said it would be unwise to just legislate an aquaculture ban at Little Assawoman Bay and Beach Cove — especially if DNREC is willing to work with the public.

“It would make me look good in my community, but it wouldn’t do [any] good” for three of 62 state legislators to ruffle feathers, said Hocker, adding that he believes DNREC is trying to work with citizens on this issue.

“We want to be civil. We want to be professional. We want to always be taking the high road on things,” Bond told the audience. “Our goal is not to embarrass the State. We could have gone to the media first.”

Besides shipping all of their data to DNREC Secretary David Small, the coalition is writing letters to the editors of newspapers, as well as to politicians and other government officials.

“We’re in this for the long haul. And we’re determined to save the cove,” Bond said. “We look forward to working with our government officials as they work toward the next step.”

Something fishy

Since September of 2015, the coalition has sent hundreds of letters and requested documents under Freedom of Information Act.

They said they believe their data is enough to discourage oyster harvesters from investing in Beach Cove. They cited temperature extremes (from freezing this winter to 85 degrees in July) and poor tidal flushing, due to the cove’s shallow entrance. With knee-deep mud on the sea bed, Launay questioned how oyster cages could be kept the requisite 4 inches off the ground.

“That’s why organizations like the EPA, FDA should be concerned. Who’s going to eat an oyster from an area that’s been designated [unsafe]?” Bond asked after the meeting.

Launay also argued that part of Beach Cove’s SADA is located very near (and with corrected calculations, should be in) the State’s Prohibited Shellfish Growing Area, based on bacteria emanating from nearby marinas.

“Based upon the prohibited shellfishing area as posted by DNREC and the calculation of the closure areas associated with the Bayside Hamlet and Quillen’s Point community marinas, as many as 19 of the 24 one-acre proposed oyster farming plots … are in violation of DNREC’s Shellfish Sanitation Regulations,” the report concluded.

They said they also feel the CIB used incomplete data to show just how busy Beach Cove is, with marinas, boat slips and other water usage.

Meanwhile, they argue that DNREC provided incomplete data to the Environmental Protection Agency, Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Coast Guard.

According to the report, Launay concluded, “It is my opinion, expressed to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that the condition and characteristics of Beach Cove make [it] unsuitable for shellfish aquaculture.”

He evaluated environmental conditions, shellfish sanitation, water quality, navigation and recreational use, and public trust considerations.

Beach Cove is significantly different from the other proposed aquaculture locations, he argued, with a higher density of development and proximity to community marinas and a boat ramp within 250 feet of the plots.

But what really upset residents, they said, was that “at no time during the process of developing its shellfishing regulations or selecting SADA sites were any waterfront riparian owners directly notified,” although they believe they should have been, based on the Regulations Governing the Use of Subaqueous Lands.

“[B]ased upon this, Mr. Launay’s 30 years of environmental permitting experience in Delaware, … at a minimum, adjacent riparian owners are notified by DNREC via direct mail even for the most minor activities, such as a simple pier. In some cases, as part of the subaqueous lands permitting and leasing procedure, landowners within 1,000 feet are notified by mail.”

“When I saw articles in the local [news]papers, I thought people read the papers,” Hocker said. “Apparently, I was wrong,” and very few people attended the first aquaculture meeting in Fenwick.

“I think there was very little thought” in the plot locations, Hocker said. “I have not heard one person say they’re against aquaculture, but let’s put it in the right place.”

Bond even works for an environmental nonprofit that has planted oyster beds.

Although oysters have long been touted for their water filtration abilities, Bond said scientific studies are second-guessing that — especially in an aquaculture setting. The report suggested that “an estimated 2.5 million tons of oyster feces each year from the proposed 24 one-acre plots” could wreck Beach Cove, which already “does not have good tidal flushing.”

The report noted that the PVC pipes marking each corner of 24 one-acre plots could confuse sailors, especially when conflicting with regular navigation markers. Plots are separated by 20-foot alleys, meant to allow for navigation through the field.

“It is difficult to contemplate how any mariner looking at a SADA site at water level could even identify a narrow channel within a vast field of 20 or more acres of 100 or more PVC pipes … under the best of circumstances, let alone under windy, inclement weather, or low-visibility conditions.”

The report is available online at www.savebeachcove.com.