After a recent uproar about the potential impacts of shellfish aquaculture in the Inland Bays, local residents gathered at a massive meeting hosted by state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and state Rep. Ron Gray this week to express their concerns.
In creating an aquaculture program, the State of Delaware is juggling environmental issues with navigational concerns. That means shellfishing must coexist with boaters, crabbers and sea turtle mating grounds. But, ultimately, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control was tasked by the state legislature to create a viable aquaculture industry, emphasized Secretary David Small of DNREC.
He joined representatives from DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, the Center for Inland Bays and the University of Delaware to address a full house at Millville fire hall on Oct. 6.
“When we have an issue the community’s concerned about, we try to get the experts in,” said Gray.
“There’s a lot of confusion lately taking place along our waterways,” said Hocker, beginning what he said would be a “discussion on the issues in an organized and an informative manner.”
A major public concern was the seeming lack of notification about the final regulations on aquaculture in the Inland Bays. For instance, residents said they wished DNREC had contacted homeowners’ associations directly.
“Did everybody get notified that this was happening? No. … So we’ll apologize for that. We do what we can. It’s never enough, quite frankly. We tried to publicize very widely,” Small said. “We’re here to listen to your concerns this evening.”
“We’re here to listen, even though we’ve listened in the past,” clarified David Saveikis, F&W director.
When the regulations were written, he said, there were two public workshops, a public hearing and two dozen newspaper articles in local papers.
“The word was out there. There was ample opportunity for folks to see what was going on out there.”
He said DNREC was not required to notify every landowner with property adjacent to the bays, and “We do not have the capacity and the resources to do that.”
DNREC was not required to consider nearby land uses, either, officials noted.
“Your regulatory process was very flawed,” said resident and aquaculture alarm-raiser Jack Nealon, who has 37 years in the EPA’s enforcement division. “There were 14 people that commented [on the regulations]. That’s less than the front row,” he said, pointing to the crowd.
A few problem areas
Under the new regulations, aquaculture areas were laid out in one-acre plots: 118 in Little Assawoman Bay, 115 in Indian River Bay and 209 in Rehoboth Bay.
In the southeast corner of Indian River Bay, Beach Cove is a small, sheltered bay, where 24 acres of aquaculture are proposed. Seven communities surround the cove, which runs from Cedar Neck to Route 1.
Beach Cove residents have grown up or raised their own children on kayaks, water skis and sails. They described a nearly closed-off cove, protected from the wind even on choppy days. But it can get shallow in low tide, accessible only by a few marshland channels, with poor overall flushing.
“Over half of the recreational use would be taken up by oyster industry. You’ve taken up the only channel in and out of there, sir. That goes against the spirit of the legislation,” James Vaughn said. “I know there was no ill-intent on not notifying us, [but] it’s almost 500 homes, and nobody knew about it.”
Beach Cove communities hired attorney John Sergovic Jr. to represent them.
“They are not opposed to aquaculture in the Inland Bays,” Sergovic said. “We all hope that the Inland Bays, with appropriately located aquaculture sites, will be a benefit not only to the environment but also benefit the economy.”
Sergovic referenced a report written by environmental consultant Edward Launay of Environmental Resources Inc., suggesting other undeveloped shorelines be used, including some between Holts Landing and Collins Creek.
Meanwhile, the land under the water may already be leased out, said Willie Coffey of The Cove. He claimed that a 1935 state law allowed people to lease the water bottom.
“People already own the leasing rights to this site. You need to find them and find out who they are.”
Meanwhile, he warned that the stench of aquaculture has already stifled Chincoteague, Va.
“Five million bucks is nothing compared to the money that residents and tourism brings down here,” Coffey said.
Near Fenwick Island, Ken Arni actually did one of the pilot programs with oyster cages, right at his job at Coastal Kayak.
But he said the Little Assawoman isn’t big enough to support everything the State proposes, and current plans could cost people jobs. During windy days on the Little Assawoman, sailboats return to shore on a 45-degree angle, but with oyster plots immediately north and south of Coastal Kayak, “It would pretty much stop all use of sailing equipment,” he said.
But the local clam population, at least, has a safeguard. Boats can’t drop cages in the water tomorrow. Every acre requested for oyster aquaculture must undergo a thorough biological survey. If there are more than two clams per square yard, that acre is off-limits for oysters.
Ready to try his luck at aquaculture, Steve Friend tried to emphasize the positive, encouraging people to give aquaculture a chance.
“They’re trying to clean the water up,” he said. People might not want it in their back yard, but he said he’d take it if he had the chance.
“I’m sorry you feel this way. But you have to give it a chance,” Friend said.
The audience at that point in the meeting had become so noisy that Friend sat back down until another woman took the microphone and invited him to return. Despite her own strong feelings, she said “part of the beauty of the political process” is sharing different opinions.
“All I want to do is grow some oysters and clams,” said Friend, a lifelong resident who grew up clamming. “It’s hard work — let me put it that way. Where these places are is in shallow water. You can’t have it in the deep. If you all are down here in the winter and you get a freeze, we’ve got to get a special permit [to move cages to deeper water]. I’m up for it.”
Friend was interrupted during his comments with interjections about the negative impact of the aquaculture plan to those willing to buy million-dollar homes locally, from property values to the pristine views.
Friend concluded, “Your million-dollar home took the view from me to the Assawoman Bay.”
The State’s General Fund is subsidizing the program’s cost, which the leases will not entirely cover. However, Saveikis said, there are bonds, so the State doesn’t take a loss if shellfishers abandon a plot.
Despite the outflow of money, he said, the economic and public benefits far outweigh the costs, considering the new jobs that would be added and water quality improvements expected to be seen.
On the maps, large chunks of bay, mostly near inland creeks and streams, are colored red. These polluted zones are off-limits to shellfishing. Despite oysters’ ability to filter 20 to 50 gallons daily, Saveikis said, they collect nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus. They’d be unsafe to eat if they had lived in the bacterial red zone.
The next step
People can still make their voices heard.
The Delaware General Assembly passed the law. The Division of Fish & Wildlife wrote the regulations. Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the plan and deciding whether to issue an aquaculture permit.
“There is another opportunity, from a formal standpoint, for you to comment, and that would be to the Corps of Engineers,” Saveikis said. “They issue a public notice. They will open the record.”
Soon, the public will be given 30 days to submit written comments. The Corps could decide to host an actual public hearing, too.
“We will issue a press release when we know that the Corps will do that,” Saveikis said.
Hocker and Gray also encouraged residents to join their email lists for regular newsletters.
“The challenge for us is to try to maintain the integrity of the program … so it’s done in a safe and responsible manner, but also to address your concerns,” Small said.
“Aquaculture, by its very nature, will displace other water uses,” Saveikis said. “The legislature specified that aquaculture must be balanced with existing uses.”