Clammers say if plans to revitalize oyster harvests in the Inland Bays are approved, their livelihoods are doomed.
"If oyster people get these leases, clammers wouldn't be allowed in," said Chris Virginski, a licensed clammer who operates in the Inland Bays.
Virginski was one of a half-dozen clammers who attended a recent oyster aquaculture planning session sponsored by the Center for the Inland Bays. A follow-up meeting was held Nov. 28 to specifically address clammers' concerns.
An Oyster Aquaculture Tiger Team has met for several months and is working on regulations that, if approved by the legislature, would open local waters to oyster harvesting. The group is studying the Inland Bays to determine where to place oyster harvesting and is working out a process for granting licenses. Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control employees are mapping areas designated for oyster harvesting that would not conflict with clamming. Some of the proposed sections overlap prolific hard clam areas that Virginski said he frequents.
Clammers, already sensitive after superstorm Sandy closed shellfish harvesting in the Inland Bays for three weeks, are afraid they won't be allowed to harvest clams in areas that they have worked for years, Virginski said.
"My problem is that you're going to come in and sample and tell me there are no clams there," he said. "If you want to know where the clams are, just ask a clammer. I've been doing this for 35 years. I might move two or three times a day until I found something."
Dave Saveikis, director of Fish and Wildlife, said his department wants to make sure the existing hard clam harvest is protected before making a final decision on oyster aquaculture in the Inland Bays.
"We're pretty comfortable that oyster aquaculture is compatible with hard clam harvesting," he said.
Differences in the way clams and oysters are grown and harvested could reduce conflicts between the two, Saveikis said. Oysters are grown in deeper water than hard clams, which are harvested manually in shallow or waist deep water, he said. Both commercial and recreational clam harvesters must be licensed by the state; a license allows clamming in any permitted area throughout the Inland Bays using a rake or other manual tool.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife is finishing a report on oyster aquaculture, which will be released in a few weeks, Saveikis said.
Discussions about oyster aquaculture have been ongoing for months, but the possibility of regulating clam aquaculture recently arose.
E.J. Chalabala, chairman of the Tiger Team, said it makes sense to include clam aquaculture in discussions about oyster aquaculture.
"We don't want to limit people from making a living," he said.
Clam harvesting leases could be similar to the proposed oyster leases. However, instead of harvesting clams throughout the Inland Bays, clammers would be limited to an area where they would plant their own clams inside a netted area, Chalabala said.
Saveikis said more research is needed before a decision is made on clam aquaculture. Primarily, he said, they would have to be certain that introducing new clams from outside the area to the Inland Bays would not destroy the indigenous hard clam population.
"We need to make sure we protect our existing hard clam population," he said.
If oyster aquaculture is approved, Virginski said an equitable system for deciding who gets an oyster lease must be in place.
"I think it should be a lottery because I've heard so much already … Who's to say there aren't names already on a list?" he said.
Rick Eakle, member of the Tiger Team, agreed that a lottery system would be a good idea for oyster harvest leases with subsequent leases offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
Tiger Team member Bill Baker said he believes watermen who have been successful harvesting shellfish in the Inland Bays should be considered first for leases.
Keeping all three of the Inland Bays open for clamming – Rehoboth, Indian River and Little Assawoman – and adding oyster aquaculture would be ideal, Chalabala said.
"They want to clam in the top two bays because that's near to where they live," Chalabala said.
The Tiger Team will meet next at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12, in the DNREC Field Office, Lewes.