REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. Delaware farmers have raised everything from apples to zinnias, but they may soon have a new crop to take to market.
Legislation is currently working its way through Delaware’s legislature to allow the aquaculture of oysters, clams and mussels in Delaware’s three inland bays.
Proponents say “fish farming” could be a multimillion dollar industry that also helps to clean the inland bays, which have often been plagued with environmental problems.
The legislation passed Delaware’s House of Representatives 41-0 and was scheduled for a possible Senate vote on June 25. It would allow people to lease small plots of underwater land for a nominal cost and use the land to raise shellfish, primarily oysters and clams.
“Delaware waters are a native habitat for oysters. Despite decades of decline, oysters do have a new future in Delaware,” said Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. “With science and good management, oyster production can be and should be encouraged and nurtured to resume its place as an important food crop, much the same as peaches, lima beans and chickens are now identified with our state.”
Delaware’s three inland bays, Rehoboth, Little Assawoman and Indian River, are located in Eastern Sussex County, sometimes within sight of the Atlantic Ocean.
The same throngs of visitors that come to Delaware beaches also flock to the warm, shallow bays to boat, windsurf and clam. On a warm summer day, the mouth of Indian River Bay is nearly clogged with fishermen drifting minnows in search of keeper flounder.
There has been some concern that aquaculture might not coexist well with so many other uses of the bays. But officials say only a small percentage of the three bays would be open for lease, probably only about 2.7 percent of the bays.
There is currently some existing commercial clamming of native clams in the bays, but officials say those clam bed areas would not be included in the leased areas.
There is no commercial oyster industry in the bays, although the Delaware Bay once supported a thriving oyster industry, much like its Chesapeake Bay cousin.
Other coastal states are already heavily invested in aquaculture. In Virginia, for example, it is a $30 million industry. Delaware, on the other hand, is coming to the party late. “Delaware is the first state, but it’s the last state in a lot of areas,” said E.J. Chalabala of Delaware’s Center for the Inland Bays. Chalabala led a “tiger” team, which developed the legislation being considered.
That team consisted of a wide range of interests, including, but not limited to commercial clammers, recreational fishermen, economic development officials, and the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Supporters say the advantages are just too great to ignore. “Over the past two decades, shellfish aquaculture on the East Coast has blossomed into a $119 million industry that is improving local economies while restoring water quality in troubled estuaries up and down the Atlantic seaboard,” said Chris Bason, executive director of Delaware’s Center for the Inland Bays.
An estimated 160 acres being used for aquaculture (the same amount now used by Rhode Island) means an estimated $2.4 to $11.2 million in gross income, said Chalabala.
“Because our native clams and oysters filter water, up to 50 gallons per day per oyster, the cultivation of thousands of oysters can have a dramatic impact on water quality in our bays while creating diverse habitat for other important aquatic animals,” Bason said.
Studies have found 49 other species of fish, crabs and underwater life living amid the oysters. “That just translates into more habitat,” said Chalabala. “It’s just a no-brainer.”