The moment that many inland bays residents have awaited is here. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened public comments for Delaware shellfish aquaculture on Jan. 21. Comments are due by Wednesday, Feb. 23.
“The public comment period is the next phase in the process for approving the eight proposed shellfish aquaculture sites in the Inland Bays,” according to state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and state Rep. Ron Gray. “Before DNREC can offer leases for the proposed oyster farms, the Army Corps of Engineers must allow the public the opportunity to submit their concerns.”
When aquaculture was voted into existence in 2013, many believed the new industry could only do good. It could create jobs, produce a special Delaware oyster product and help filter the inland bays, which are in need of cleaner water for their health.
But for some residents and businesses, that rosy picture faded when the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) announced the planned aquaculture locations last summer.
A total of 442 one-acre plots are proposed in Rehoboth Bay, Indian River Bay, Little Assawoman Bay and Delaware’s portion of the Big Assawoman Bay.
Some waterfront residents have criticized the locations over everything from environmental concerns to a battle for recreational space and the visual aspect of watercraft cultivating oysters or clams in shallow-water bags or cages.
“Make sure you make yourself known why you think it’s the wrong location,” said Hocker, who himself planned to do so, having voted for aquaculture before the controversial locations were announced.
“I suggest not sending the same exact letter. I don’t know who drafted the letter, but I must have gotten a 100 of the same letter,” Hocker told his constituents in November. “It’s a lot more weight when it’s a personal letter from those who are affected.”
The Corps is seeking comment from federal, state and local agencies, as well as private citizens and groups with an interest in the program.
But when making an argument, there is a difference between what is inconvenient and what is detrimental, said Corps biologist Ed Bonner.
He said he hasn’t read the comments the Corps has received in-depth, but he’s glanced at them and understands the gist of many complaints.
When he reviews comments for the Philadelphia District (which includes Delaware), Bonner said he sometimes receives vague complaints.
“I have a hard time grasping what the issue is and the objective is, and how I can address that?”
If someone complains about the impact on wetlands, he said, “I look at the sites and I see none are located in wetlands. All are located offshore.”
As for navigation, “If someone is in a scenario where someone has to go around something that wasn’t there before, that’s one thing,” Bonner warned. If a resident can prove that he cannot access his dock as a result of the planned aquaculture site, Bonner said he may ask DNREC to remove that individual site.
The Corps will consider endangered species, navigation and more, and how that relates to aquaculture and the recreational use of the area.
“If there is an issue [like endangered species], that’s one of the things I will try to sit down and resolve,” Bonner said. “We will try to do a thorough assessment on the physical site, but a lot is based on the survey the State has done.”
The Corps is also reviewing is own approval process.
Typically, individual shellfish growers apply to the Corps for a permit. The 45-day process includes review of the site and environmental concerns. But a revision to the nationwide permit 48 (NWP 48), which authorizes U.S. commercial shellfish aquaculture activities, means that growers in Delaware could apply for those eight zones in a streamlined process.
A grower would still need approval, but the Corps could respond in weeks, rather than months, because DNREC and the Corps already did the legwork.
“Some of them are upset with the way the state process has taken place. I feel their pain,” Bonner said, but “I have to be careful. I cannot dictate to the State their state program. I have to see how I can fit that state program into my [national] permit process.”
He said the day-to-day impact of aquaculture depends on people’s current use of the shallow water. Because it’s shallow, “You’re not looking at 200-foot vessels coming into the inland bays.”
He said he is open to ideas.
“Anyone can request a public hearing. … Our decision whether to host a public hearing is based on whether there is any significant information out there that we have not considered,” Bonner said.
“Public hearing is oftentimes an opportunity for the public to vent,” he warned. “We have to assess, is there a venting, or new information we can get from that?”
If a public hearing is scheduled, Bonner would post notice on the Philadelphia Corps website and personally send a mass email to his list of concerned parties. (He said the Corps used to send notification to adjacent property owners for national plans. But that no longer occurs and he said there are no property owners truly adjacent to the sites anyway. All the proposed sites are surrounded by State-owned waters.)
Ultimately, the Corps may approve a few or all sites, or “We may say, ‘Nope, there’s too much controversy. There’s too much unknown.’”
View the aquaculture plans online at www.nap.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/PublicNotices.aspx or read DNREC’s history at www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries/Pages/ShellfishAquaculture.aspx.
Comments can be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or in writing to the District Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District; Wanamaker Building, 100 Penn Square East; Philadelphia, PA 19107-3390; RE: Delaware Inland Bays Aquaculture.