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Delaware looking to make a splash in aquaculture industry

The state is looking to benefit from a new law that establishes shellfish aquaculture. Delaware is currently the only state on the East coast without a presence in the shellfish farming industry.

Signed by Governor Markell on Wednesday, the new law authorizes DNREC to administer aquaculture activities like oyster farming within Delaware’s Inland Bays and sets criteria for lease sites and applications for leasing.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee is looking forward to the economic impacts of establishing an oyster farming industry in the state.

“My hope is,” said Kee, “in a few years a person can walk into a store or a restaurant and order Delaware oysters instead of somewhere else and that helps generate revenue for the watermen and also helps create some jobs.”

Total economic impact of shellfish aquaculture has the potential to range from $6 to $28 million from using just 1% percent of the total surface areas of Rehoboth, Indian River and Little Assawoman Bays.

Delaware looking to make a splash in aquaculture industry
Gov. Markell signs the aquaculture bill into law at The Center for Inland Bays in Rehoboth.

“Supporting this industry,” Governor Markell said Wednesday, “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.”

Shellfish such as oysters and clams act as filters by helping to remove nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that feed algae overgrowths that degrade fish and wildlife habitats by blocking light from penetrating the water column.

“Oysters and clams are working all day to filter algae out of the water,” said Center for Inland Bays executive director Chris Bason, “A healthy adult oyster can filter 20-50 gallons of water a day. And when you add that up you’re talking about thousands and thousands of gallons of water aday that can be filtered by just one acre of oyster aquaculture.”

The law has set limits on the acreage that can be used to farm shellfish, 5% of Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay respectively and 10 % of Little Assawoman Bay.

The Tiger Team, a group of representatives from various parties of interest who gathered data and reported on various environmental and economic elements of the industry, also took into consideration the areas where people presently use the bays when deciding on aquaculture-compatible areas.

Twelve lease sites across the three bays have been proposed, however nothing is set in stone until the Division of Fish and Wildlife set regulations for the industry, which should be determined by late summer of 2014.

“The regulations will work with a broader set of interest groups now through public hearings and a formal public process,” said Division of Fish and Wildlife director David Saveikis. “But we think the ability is there to make the shellfish aquaculture compatible with the existing uses of the bay both recreationally and commercially.”

Some businesses are already taking part in the development of the industry. Ted Nowakowski of Broadwater Oyster Company on Virginia’s eastern shore would like to help re-establish Delaware’s aquaculture.

“I can remember when I was a kid, oysters growing in Rehoboth Bay,” Nowakowski said. “So I’d like to see the same thing happen again and create a marketplace for Delaware oysters.”

Still, it’s the impact to the environment and Delaware’s inland bays – which are some of the most polluted estuaries in the entire region – that may be most advantageous.

“Our job is to clean up the bays, so the best benefit is really the ecological benefits,” Bason said. “In addition to [shellfish] pulling pollution out of the water and cleaning the water, they’re going to provide habitat for all the little fish and crustaceans that live in the bays.

“These oyster farms are like artificial reefs. So the more oysters you get, the more fish you get, the more healthy bays you get, the more opportunity you get for people to come down here and enjoy it.”