Rehoboth Beach resident Andy Nowakowski has a passion for oyster farming.
It might be that his family has been raising oysters in Virginia for more than five years. Or maybe it's just the call of the water and salt air.
Whatever it is, the Cape Region native dreams of raising oysters in the Inland Bays, and new legislation could make that dream come true.
Nowakowski has attended nearly 30 meetings over the past year on developing an aquaculture industry in the Inland Bays. A task force organized by the Center for the Inland Bays unanimously approved a package of code changes to allow oyster farming.
While those involved in the task force see many benefits of promoting aquaculture, others – including active clammers – recall the devastation of the oyster industry in the mid-1970s, when disease and overharvesting resulted in the collapse of the industry. Since then, the state stopped leasing land in the Inland Bays; the bottom is now a public resource.
To reestablish oyster farming, new legislation is needed. In addition, once legislation is passed, policies and regulations must be developed by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
“I want to bring oysters back to the bays and grow my business here,” said Nowakowski, a co-owner of Broadwater Oyster Co. in Virginia.
“As a father, I don't want to travel back and forth to Virginia when I could stay here and be with my family.”
Nowakowski said the bays are underutilized most of the year, with a peak in boat and recreational traffic during the summer months from June to September.
“The rest of the time there's hardly anyone out there,” he said. “I realize there will be some conflicts, but they would be worked out to benefit everyone.”
Oyster farmers raise commercial oysters in wire containers, which sit on the bottom of the bay in a specific location. The racks are marked above the waterline with plastic pipes, much like the state marks boating channels in the bays.
If commercial oyster operations were allowed in the Inland Bays, oyster farmers could raise 1,000 oysters in a single layer in just one wire rack.
“They can grow two or three layers if they want and end up with 3,000 marketable oysters,” said EJ Chalabala, restoration coordinator at the Center for the Inland Bays.
Chalabala said studies show one acre of leased bottom can produce about 750,000 oysters, a gold mine for oyster farmers and a benefit for everyone using the bays because the oysters would filter polluting nutrients out of 15 million to 40 million gallons of water per day.
“It's really a community benefit,” said Sally Boswell, outreach coordinator at the center. “Aquaculture helps clean the bay water, promotes larger fish populations and could bring up to $2 million into our local economy.”
After considering the task force's yearlong effort, the center's board of directors approved the final report March 22. Many stakeholders hope proposed legislation will be introduced this year, Boswell said.
“This has huge benefits for the community at large. There are some people who are afraid of it and opposed to it, but there are so many benefits for the southern Delaware community,” Boswell said.
Clammers want to protect bays
While oyster eaters and oyster farmers may welcome a renewed aquaculture industry, some local clammers feel the public resource of the Inland Bays could be lost.
Lewes clammer Todd Dorman started clamming when he was 5 years old. By the time he was 11, he was running his own clamming boat. Now 54, Dorman said he is concerned about changing the Inland Bays from a public resource to a private industry.
“I'm in the wholesale seafood business, so I buy a lot of clams and oysters grown in Virginia,” Dorman said. “If I could get a lease in our bays and grow oysters and sell them, it would be great, but what am I taking away from everyone else?”
Dorman said the package being sent to legislators includes changes that would make areas of the bays private for companies interested in leasing the bottom to grow oysters. He said recreational boaters and clammers will be surprised to see areas staked off, because the process of writing the new code did not include public input.
“I don't want to take away from other people to get to the top,” Dorman said. “What makes those bays the jewels they are is that they are public. You can go out there and everyone has the same rights.”
Dorman said when he worked in Virginia, he saw small areas leased for oystering and clamming as permitted by legislation. But within a few years, leased bottom increased so much it pushed out many recreational clammers, Dorman said.
“It's like a snowball going downhill, and the next thing you know, it's out of control,” he said.
He wants to make sure the public resource of the bays does not get ruined by private interests.
“When they take it out of the public's hands and put it in the private hands, then you don't get to use it,” he said. “It's a lot bigger issue than what they are making it out to be.”
He thinks the center should look at other options, such as shoreline buffers to reduce pollution in the bays.
Later this year, CIB staffers will begin a project to promote living shoreline buffers, Boswell said.
“We are trying to work with the clammers to show them it will benefit them,” Chalabala said. “In the end, they will be able to clam where they have always clammed, and they will be able to lease areas to raise clams in Little Assawoman Bay.”
State environmental officials do not want to allow leased clam beds in Rehoboth or Indian River bays because they are afraid introduced clam populations will compete with clams already living in the bays.
Clammers are concerned that the leased bay bottom could restrict them from clamming where they want, but Chalabala said the leased areas make up only 2 percent of the total Inland Bays, and those areas are ones where research shows there are no clams.
Cleaner water will benefit all
The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will control aquaculture leases, which will likely be distributed through a lottery system. Those regulations will be created once legislation passes allowing for aquaculture in the bays.
“We are meeting with people to find out all the issues; we have done mapping to see where boats go and where clam densities are,” Chalabala said. “In legislation, we want to put caps on the number of acres leased.”
The legislation could restrict leases to about 5 percent of Rehoboth Bay, 5 percent of Indian River Bay and 10 percent of Little Assawoman Bay, which equals about 400 acres, he said.
“It will take a long time to get to that,” Chalabala said. “We aren't recreating the wheel. This is what is working for other states.”
Clammers will be able to go anywhere, except on land that is leased to an oyster or clam farmer, but Chalabala said the leased areas are located in areas that usually have no clams, so clammers would not want to rake there anyway.
“I think starting out it would be only about 30 to 50 acres in the beginning,” Chalabala said. “In the states we studied that have an aquaculture program, it took many years to grow the program. We want people to know that this isn't going to be a rush to leasing; it's going to be a process.”
“In the end, it will benefit everyone because cleaner water means better quality of life, better fisheries and better recreation,” Chalabala said.
“It's such a concentrated type of farming,” Boswell said. “You can raise a lot of oysters without that much space.”
The changes to Delaware code will be made through legislation. At the end of the 22 task force meetings to determine if aquaculture would benefit the bays, all 11 interested parties voted to send the proposed changes to the Legislature, Chalabala said.
Center leaders will meet with legislators over the next two weeks to determine who will introduce the package.
“We have received a lot of support for this legislation,” Boswell said. “We hosted a breakfast with legislators in December and everyone wanted to be on board. There just really isn't a downside.”
On the East Coast, shellfish aquaculture is a $119 million industry – but Delaware's share is zero dollars, Chalabala said. Virginia makes up 25 percent, Connecticut is 29 percent and Rhode Island has 2 percent.
“We are looking at Rhode Island as a model for Delaware,” he said. “They have about 160 acres and make about $2.6 million in revenue. It took them 15 years to get up to 160 acres.”
All the other states with access to the ocean have shellfish aquaculture, Chalabala said.
“We really think we are going to have more acreage for lease than demand,” said Boswell. “This isn't an industrialization of the bays.”
During the legislative process, public input hearings would be held, allowing clammers and other interested parties to have their opinions heard, Boswell said.
“If there was a lot of support for leased clam beds in all the bays, then the legislation could be changed to allow for it,” Boswell said.
For more information on the proposal being sent to the Legislature for sponsoring, call the Center for the Inland Bays at 302-226-8105.