Last week, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed House Bill 160, to permit shellfish aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays.
“Due to the hard work of Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, the Center for Inland Bays and its partners, DNREC and the Department of Agriculture, we are establishing shellfish aquaculture in a responsible and beneficial way that respects the other activities in our bays,” said Markell. “Supporting this industry represents another example of how we can enact policies that boost our economy and generate millions of dollars for our state, while also better protecting our environment.”
Through the work of the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB), a “tiger team” was formed to help revise the existing Delaware code and draft proposals. It included representatives of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), Department of Agriculture, University of Delaware Sea Grant, Sussex County Economic Development, recreation interests, commercial clammers, shellfish aquaculture interests, the Delaware Shellfish Advisory Council and the University of Maryland Extension Service.
“These are folks who worked tirelessly, without hesitation, in a very collaborative fashion to figure out how shellfish aquaculture can work in Delaware’s Inland Bays,” said Chris Bason, executive director of the CIB. “Their collaboration over the past year, I think, is a really inspiring example of community work at its best that resulted in an excellent product. We can’t thank them enough.”
Under the bill, commercial shellfish farmers would be permitted to lease one- to five-acre tracts of shellfish grounds in Delaware’s Inland Bays. Farmers could lease up to five acres in Rehoboth and Indian River bays combined and could lease one to five additional acres in Little Assawoman Bay.
The leases would be renewable annually for 15 years, at which time the lessee could renew for another 15 years. Delaware-based residents, partnerships or corporations would be charged $100 per acre each year, while out-of-state farmers would pay $1,000 per acre annually.
In their study, the Center for Inland Bays recommends several lease areas in each of the three Inland Bays. Under the recommendations, Rehoboth Bay would have 261 acres, or 2.8 percent of the total bay area, available for lease, Indian River Bay would have 125 acres (1.3 percent) available, and Little Assawoman Bay would have 227 acres (10 percent).
“This kind of bill would not happen without the incredible collaboration of these agencies,” said Markell. “What’s most exciting to me about this bill is proving once again that we can have a win-win, in what’s good for the economy… and at the same time directly improve the environment. People say you can’t have both. This unbelievably and directly proves that wrong.”
Now that the bill has been signed into law, it will go to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, where regulations will be drawn up.
“We take this very seriously. There is a regulatory process that we have to go through. The formal part takes several months, but before that we’re going to meet with stakeholders, hold workshops,” said David Saveikis, director of Fish & Wildlife for the state. “Our job at Fish & Wildlife is to get regulations in place as quickly as possible, to facilitate entrepreneurs who want to do shellfish aquaculture, at the same time making sure those activities are compatible with our commercial and recreational industries and businesses.”
In 2011, the shellfish aquaculture industry on the East Coast was valued at $119 million, with 10 percent annual growth.
As a conservative estimate, shellfish aquaculture in the Inland Bays could realize gross income of more than $2.5 million per year, with a total economic impact of more than $6 million, by only using one percent of the total bottom area of the Inland Bays.
“Supporting this industry represents another example of how we can enact policies that boost our economy and generate millions of dollars for our state, while also better protecting our environment.”
“For me, three things come to mind when I think about aquaculture: jobs, a local product and cleaner water,” said Schwartzkopf. “Why would anybody be opposed to something that would do those great things?”
According to CIB, nutrient pollution continues to be the No. 1 problem for Delaware’s Inland Bays. While aquaculture will not solve all the problems of the Bays, the nutrient removal capacity of shellfish could significantly improve water quality, while generating revenue for the local economy.
“The Inland Bays have been the focus of environmental protection for many, many decades,” said Saveikis. “It’s a national estuary program, regionally, if not nationally, and globally recognized for its significance.
“One of the big issues is water quality — that’s where it all starts. The department is continuing to focus on improving the water quality, with stakeholders, through our regulatory process, and there has been great progress is removing pollution point sources — wastewater treatment sites that discharge directly into the Inland Bay.
“We’re in the process of removing Millsboro’s discharge. In 2014, the Rehoboth discharge will be eliminated from the Inland Bays. That is significant in reducing the nutrient reduction that comes into the Inland Bays.
“With those discharges being eliminated,” Saveikis said, “that leaves non-point sources as the primary nutrient source for the Inland Bays. We need to work on innovative ways to improve water quality.”
“My family has been on this bay all my life and before I was born — fishing, sailing, all that. The bay is a lot better than what it was 15 or 20 years ago,” added Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. “That’s the result of combined efforts of everybody in this room, and it’s moving in the right direction, and I have no doubt that it will continue moving in the right direction.”
The bill will also help to bring Delaware oysters back to market, thus supporting the local economy.
“This is going to produce a source of local seafood that can be marketed locally, regionally, nationally,” said Saveikis. “It’s going to be great to go into a restaurant in Dewey, Rehoboth or Fenwick where you can get locally grown shellfish from the Inland Bays. I think there’re great marketing opportunities there, all while supporting the local economy.”
“My dream is to walk into a restaurant in Rehoboth or Bethany or Fenwick and see Rehoboth Bay oysters, Indian River oysters,” added Kee.
State Sen. Gerald Hocker, who has been an avid proponent of the bill since its inception, said he cannot wait to have Delaware oysters in his two supermarkets.
“I do remember the bays, and I will say the bays are much better than what they were. Back in the early ’60s, late ’50s, my father’s best friend was the captain of the Coast Guard Station down here. They would bring home oysters from Rehoboth Bay, and they were good oysters,” he recalled.
“Those oysters left after the ’62 storm. There’s no reason why we don’t have them back. Having two seafood markets in my stores, I don’t want customers to come in asking, ‘Are these Chincoteague oysters?’ I want them coming in saying, ‘Are these Delaware oysters?’”
Bason added that, although it will take about a year to draft the regulations, Delaware is well on its way to improving the quality of the bays while helping to spur the local economy.
“I think this has great potential as a beginning for the state of Delaware,” he said. “Delaware used to be an oyster powerhouse back in the day. We shipped our shellfish all over the world, and I’m hopeful that this is the beginning. Hopefully, we can get back to something like that.
“We’re starting here in the Delaware inland bays, but I think there’s great potential to use shellfish to clean up the environment and improve our economy all over the state in many different ways — ways that can protect our shorelines, clean up our water and create jobs for families in Sussex and throughout the state.”
For more information on the Center for the Inland Bays’ work on aquaculture, visit www.inlandbays.org/aquaculture-initiative. House Bill 160 can be read in its entirety at legis.delaware.gov/LIS/lis147.nsf/2bede841c6272c888025698400433a04/5fa45acf1edc76ab85257b79004e49cf?OpenDocument.