Delaware Aquaculture regulations, maps taking shape

Date Published: 
March 7, 2014

Fittingly, oyster shells lay across the parking lot, left by seabirds that dropped them to access the soft meat inside, as dozens of people recently walked across the light rubble to attend DNREC’s second public workshop on developing Delaware’s shellfish aquaculture regulations.

Division of Fish & Wildlife staff are getting public input to write regulations to implement the 2013 bill legalizing commercial shellfish farming in the Inland Bays. They hope to finish the guidelines and start leasing seabed later this year.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Stewart Michels, program manager with Fish & Wildlife.

As the last East Coast state to have a shellfish aquaculture program, Delaware still has much to learn from other states. But, in an added complication, the First State’s Inland Bays have a population density 10 times higher than surrounding states’ aquaculture zone. Boating and fishing still take place around the Eastern oysters and hard clams that live and would be farmed there.

“We do take those other users’ concerns very seriously. … That’s why we have these maps back,” said DNREC environmental scientist Zina Hense, referencing the updated aquaculture maps. “We got a lot of feedback.”

At last count, there were potential 683 acres of aquaculture sites in the Rehoboth Bay (just north of the Indian River Inlet, on its eastern shore), Indian River (on the westernmost point where it meets Pepper Creek and the Indian River Bay) and the Little Assawoman Bay (much of the eastern shoreline).

A site near South Bethany was recently taken out of the running.

The situation is still in flux, as DNREC surveys to determine the final acreage that will be offered and ensure that wild clams and other species are not seriously affected.

Michels stopped short of calling the expected process when watermen apply for leases, a “rubberstamp process … but we hope to make it that simple,” he said.

“We do not want speculators. We want folks that are really prepared to make a go of it,” DNREC officials said. That means people aren’t sitting on the land but putting cages in the water immediately.

First dibs on the acres of seabed will be the result of lottery (even those guidelines are still up in the air). After that, it’s first-come, first-served.

Anyone may apply, and the legislation gives no preference to Delawareans, although it is designed to encourage them with $100 per acre lease rates, versus $1,000 rates for out-of-state interests.

Money and influence have no power in the lottery, Hense said, but DNREC wants to ensure applicants are serious. They want to see an operation plan, liability insurance and proof of financial capability.

Because the seafloor is limited, he said, “We want people to understand what the financial requirements are from the time you plant the first seed to the time of harvest. It may be several years.”

People may consider sites outside of DNREC’s specified area, but they’ll have to pay for surveying and environmental studies.

But state Sen. Gerald Hocker said he had believed that people could not go outside of the predetermined area, saying, “That was a big issue for us. That was made very clear to us.”

DNREC interprets the bill to “believe the intent was to make it difficult” but not impossible to go outside the designated areas, said David Saveikis, director of the Division of Fish & Wildlife.

The bill itself says that the total of “areas identified for shellfish aquaculture leasing” shall not exceed the designated percentages. There is room to “add acreage for shellfish aquaculture from areas not identified by the Department as long as all state and federal criteria for leasing are met and the percentage of sub-aqueous bottom” for each bay is not exceeded.

The law designates 5 percent of Rehoboth Bay, 5 percent of the Indian River Bay and 10 percent of Little Assawoman Bay as the maximum to be available for aquaculture.

“But if you have a great idea where shellfish aquaculture should occur, let us know. We’ll take it,” Hense said.

The overall price of farming will vary.

“There’s no way to say it costs X amount,” Hense said.

Startup costs for oysters could be $61,000, and it would be two years before they’re ready for harvest, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Clams could cost $43,000 to start and require three years of waiting before harvest. That’s the price of a vessel, seed, gear, labor and more (never mind marketing costs, from advertising to shipping).

But the costs and income should be more attractive over time, officials said. And DNREC officials said they hope lessees will raise at least 100,000 shellfish per acre — a small number compared to surrounding states, where some raise 10 times that amount.

Terry Murray asked how a $300 application fee and $100 lease could pay for adequate late-night patrols by Fish & Wildlife staff. “Does that cover extra enforcement?”

The initial low costs were meant to encourage watermen, officials emphasized. Gov. Jack Markell had recommended that general funds subsidize the program. Next year, they’ll look around and update patrols as needed, they said.

“It would be irresponsible to ask for five Boston whalers for 15 acres,” Michels said.

Other topics discussed at the meeting included buoys, buying seed (or spat), a minimum production requirement and how to transfer or give up leased sites. There is no partnership established for the program with the Delaware Economic Development Office, but Hense encouraged growers to talk to DEDO.

They also discussed the difference between the two types of surveyors who might be employed in getting started: hydraulic surveyors (more knowledgeable of the specific needs and pricy) and land surveyors (much cheaper and certified, but who might need a boat ride and be less experienced underwater). However, the prices were in line with those in other states, and it’s not a large portion of the overall startup costs, said Hense.

Some watermen are concerned about getting a quality site and “not being regulated to the point where you can’t make any money,” said Murray, who hopes to lease a full 10 acres.

“I’d like them to think about growing physically,” said Kevin Beam, who works around Slaughter Beach. A business could become stagnant when limited to 5 acres, he said, noting that he won’t fish the Assawoman.

“A farmer doesn’t plant corn every year. You rotate to balance the crop,” Murray added.

Some at the meeting were not happy to hear that the aquaculture sites won’t be off-limits to recreational users. So what happens when a personal watercraft crashes into cages, they wondered. Leased sites will be well-marked, but it’s illegal to ban people from public-trust areas.

DNREC sought suggestions and comments on everything from seed to cage types.

Anyone wishing to make comments on shellfish regulation should do it soon, as DNREC is moving forward with regulations and the Start Action Notice.

For more information or to make comments, contact the Fisheries Section at (302) 739-2960, visit www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries or email zina.hense@state.de.us. Mail can be sent to Zina Hense, Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 330, Little Creek, DE 19961.