Commercial clammers not warming to leased bottom in bays

Steve Copp, Cliff Copp and Stanley "Chris" Virginski lean on Cliff's clamming rig and talk leasing. BY DENNIS FORNEY
August 24, 2012

Kay Copp called last week. Copp's Seafood, near Love Creek. “Clammers are upset,” she said. “They're having meetings about leasing bottom in the Inland Bays. Clammers don't like the idea. Don't like the process. Feel like it's being kept hush-hush, like it's being pushed through.”

The “they” is state officials and representatives for the Center for the Inland Bays. Rightfully concerned about cleaning up the bays and keeping them healthy, Inland Bays folks planted test plots of oysters a few years back, near the James Farm preserve on Indian River Bay. Oysters grew well. Oysters are filter feeders. In the process, they can help clean the waters of the bays. Allowing watermen to lease bottom, grow and manage oysters, could bring back a former industry and help clean the bays.

Delaware law prohibits any leasing of ground in the bays. There's the rub. Inland Bays folks want the law changed; clammers don't.

Steve Copp, Kay's son, manages the seafood business. Buys clams from local clammers. Does a fair amount of clamming himself. “It just doesn't seem right. They say we're the only state not getting into aquaculture. But these are shallow bays, little bays. Once they take a little bottom then they get their foot in the door, and start taking more. Who's going to pay for the enforcement? Who's going to pay the lawsuits when boaters sue because they've lost their lower units? Tangled up in oyster cages. Or what if a child gets thrown into the bay because a boat gets brought up short on a cage? These are recreational waters. And then they have these meetings during the day when clammers have to work to make a living. They get paid to attend the meetings. Clammers don't.”

Chris Virginski stops by. Makes his living clamming. He said one of the Inland Bays people told him if things didn't work out he could always get a job at Wawa or Walmart. “As if that's going to pay the bills.”

“How long have you been clamming?” “Since I was 14.” “How old are you now?” “52.” “And you can make a living clamming?” “If you treat it like a job you can. Go every day when the weather's right. Only time I didn't clam was the year everything froze up. 77 or 78. Took a job inside for a while. Man told me the best thing I did there was take the trash out. I told him as soon as that pond thaws out I'm going back to clamming. Been doing it ever since.”

Look at Chris's forearms. He's not lying. Don't bet against him in arm wrestling. Bull raking. Human powered. Hard work. Out in nature. “We need the bottom to be open. Clams move around. You have to be able to go different places depending on the weather.”

Plenty of clams to go around

“Has the bays' water quality improved any through the years?” “It hasn't gotten any worse,” says Chris. “There's plenty of clams out there if you're willing to work for them.” Steve puts it differently. “They don't jump in the boat but if you stay at it you can catch them.”

Kay says there are anywhere from 10 to 45 clammers who work the bays.

Steve is a member of Delaware's Shellfish Advisory Council. So was his father, Cliff, before him. “We've suggested to them that they try this first in Little Assawoman Bay,” said Steve. “There's not as much boating traffic there. The commercial clammers don't work there. But it doesn't seem convenient to them. Not as easy to access. We say try there first to see if it works rather than cause trouble in the bigger bays.”

Cliff Copp joins the conversation. He's 75. Sugar problems causing him trouble. “Doctor says I've done enough. Time to let the younger ones take over.” Leans against his clamming rig. Wide, flat-bottomed boat with an outboard. “Starting to feel better now. Legs got weak after laying around in hospital and home. Getting stronger though. Think I'll get ready to do some more clamming.”

Copp said he and neighbor Bob Dorman fought against leasing back in the ‘70s. “Elisha Cropper had some bottom in Indian River Bay and wanted more. We went to Dover. Pete duPont was governor. I told the lady I wanted just five minutes with the governor. He gave it to us. I told him what was what and damn if he didn't come back with it. Not long after, the state outlawed all leasing of bottom in the bays. That's the public's land. There's so much boating, and so many people come here for recreational clamming. There shouldn't be no leases in them back bays.”

(Cliff sees a groundhog 50 yards behind him, near his garden. “Killed 13 of them last year,” he says. “They eat a lot.” Groundhogs are always fat. Successful creatures.)

State caught in the middle

John Clark administers fisheries for Delaware's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Like a clam between the bottom and the sky, he's in the middle. "Some of those promoting this don't understand our responsibility to this public trust resource. We're aware of the watermen's concerns. Trying to thread the needle. People are pushing us to move quickly. Others are dead set against it."

Clark said there is a long way to go before any change, if at all, is made. "Changes would have to be made to the state code. Then there would have to be proposed regulations. Then public hearings. In the 1970s there was an effort made to lease oyster bottom and allow the use of mechanical gear. Then there was push back. The department closed the leases. That's still on the books. No leasing."

It's rare you'll hear “inefficient” used in a complimentary fashion. Clark did. "Our clam resource has been managed well for forty years. Clams won't handle heavy harvesting. In our bays, clamming is very popular. Clammers are making a living. Human-powered harvesting. In every area where they've allowed mechanical harvesting and suction devices there have been problems. Ours is inefficient and not as destructive to the bottom. It's compatible with the resource."

He echoed other concerns. “Those in charge of boating are concerned about off-bottom culture of oysters. It would have to be away from healthy clam bottom. And navigation problems. How to mark them. The there's the whole question of the bottom as a public trust resource. This would – to some degree - be privatizing a resource. There's also concern about not disrupting long-term, established uses.”

Clark agrees that Little Assawoman Bay, south of Indian River Bay, could be an ideal place to try the leasing and aquaculture for clams and oysters. “It definitely would be preferable as a place that wouldn't conflict with other uses.” As Clark said, there's a long way to go on this issue.

The beauty and simplicity of inefficiency and its compatibility with Delaware clam resource intrigues me.

Maryland uses the strategy in parts of the Chesapeake where only sailing skipjacks can be used on certain days to harvest oysters.

It all reminds me of John the blacksmith's prescription years ago for slowing down growth in Sussex County: “Outlaw power saws.”

Stay tuned.

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