DOVER — Legislation to implement aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays progressed in the state Legislature last week despite opposition from some watermen.
House Bill 16 was released on Wednesday by the Natural Resources Committee. It would make aquaculture in Delaware a state-controlled industry of leasing water by the acre for commercial harvesting of shellfish.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, distributed a press release on the proposed legislation late last month that cited the Delaware Center for Inland Bays reporting that aquaculture is a $119 million industry on the East Coast.
Delaware is the only East Coast state without aquaculture, and supporters of the bill argue that not implementing aquaculture is neglecting obvious revenue and job creation.
Well-known opponent of the legislation John Knapp, a longtime Long Neck resident, like many others present at the meeting, is concerned with over-expansion of the program. He came to the meeting with a petition signed by nearly 400 Delaware residents opposing the legislation.
The bill specifies that aquafarmers will be able to lease 1- to 5-acre tracts in Delaware’s Inland Bays. They could lease up to a combined five acres in Rehoboth and Indian River bays and between one to five additional acres in Little Assawoman Bay.
“I have grown up around the Inland Bays, so I know how much they are treasured,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf. “This is also a resource that can produce millions of dollars in unrealized potential.”
Contracts made will be renewable annually for 15 years. Delaware-based companies or aquafarmers would be charged $100 per acre and out-of-state companies would be charged $1,000 per acre annually.
In Delaware bays and other Delaware waters, it’s impossible to see the bottom due to excess sediment and organic matter. Oysters, the primary shellfish discussed in the bill, are filter feeders, meaning they consume plankton and dissolved organic matter. This increases water clarity and the oysters can thoroughly clean shallow waters.
It is estimated that one acre can produce nearly 750,000 oysters, which could filter between 15 to 40 million gallons of water daily.
Ted Nowakowski, a former Lewes resident, moved to Virginia three years ago to begin aquafarming, since it was not an option in Delaware.
He began with 600,000 oysters and his farm now has 3.5 million; oysters take one and a half to two years to mature to harvest size. He has been able to hire three employees and ships his product all over the country.
“This in an industry that can explode in Delaware. It will help the bays; there isn’t anywhere in there where you can see the bottom,” he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Knapp said, “This seems like a huge project that will only benefit a few people. Does a person who employs only three people and ships his product nationwide really help our local economy?”
Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, has been exploring the prospect of aquaculture since 2011 and has held 22 meetings to discuss the subject. Overall, the organization has concluded that aquaculture is an excellent idea for Delaware to clean out the water.
Although those meetings occurred, Mr. Knapp said that he and other concerned citizens never heard about the meetings.
“I am a resident down here and never once did I see an ad in the paper or anything letting people know about these meetings,” he said.
Mr. Bason said from the meetings, “the biggest concerns we have are that there needs to be specific requirements in the bill such as a cap on the total area that can be leased and a maximum number of leases. We hope these specific regulations can be added to the bill within the next six months.”
Collin O’Mara, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environment, complimented Mr. Bason’s diligent research and commitment to aquaculture and said that DNREC also has similar concerns about the bill moving forward. Mr. O’Mara said DNREC fully supports aquaculture but necessary limitations will need to be followed and enforced.
Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown/Lewes, whose district in Sussex County is home to many fishermen, held a constituent meeting on May 23 to address local concerns.
“Many fishermen’s concern is twofold. They are concerned about tourism. If people are coming to Delaware to fish but the waters the previously used are leased to commercial fishermen, they may not come back. Also, they worry that since Sandy, the local waters do not have as much available space as before to fish so if there are commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen, it may be too crowded. Lastly, for everyone involved, there is always the fear of the unknown.”
She proposed an amendment be made that would cap the number of leases and could be revised in the future after the original number has been tested.
Another proponent of the bill was Brenna Goggin, an advocate for the Delaware Nature Society. “It is really a plus that we did not start aquaculture 20 years ago when other states did because we do not run the risk of running into the same problems the first states did. Aquaculture will be an effective program for Delaware; it will be a local industry and we will actually know where our food is coming from,” she said.
The Center for Inland Bays recommends that Rehoboth Bay would have 261 acres for lease (2.8 percent), Indian River Bay would have 125 acres (1.3 percent) and Little Assawoman Bay would have 227 acres (10 percent). The regulations would be DNREC’s responsibility to enforce.
“If the legislation goes into effect, these fishermen will need to be accountable to someone in addition to DNREC. It’s impossible to know how easily people could abuse the rules if they’re only accountable to one organization,” said Mr. Knapp.
He also said that many fishermen come from Pennsylvania to Delaware because they were pushed away from their former fishing waters in New Jersey due to the state’s aquaculture legislation.
Aside from the fishermen that come to Delaware, there are people who just come for fun and recreation.
“There are so many people who come down here during the summer and like to enjoy the time on their boats. These people aren’t experienced boaters so they have a hard time navigating the waters and with even more areas they need to avoid, it could be a disaster. Taking a boat through someone’s leased water might result in a crime,” he said.
Mr. Knapp said it’s impossible for the public to understand how the area designated in the legislation will affect recreational watermen and people boating for fun unless they come out to the bays to see the area for themselves.
Staff writer Ashton Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 741-8272. Follow AshtonReports on Twitter.