Clammers and boaters say they will not back down in their opposition to aquaculture in the Inland Bays.
John Golob, a Pennsylvania resident who says he boats on the bays every weekend, said the plan to bring oyster farmers to the bays will harm everyone who uses the bays.
"I guarantee you if oyster cages show up in the bays, we won't be coming down here anymore," Golob proclaimed to a slightly rowdy crowd.
Chris Bason, director of the Center for the Inland Bays, presented a plan to lease areas of the Inland Bays for oyster farming during a meet-and-greet hosted by Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown in Long Neck May 23.
King hosted the event to hear more about the project, which has been hailed by environmentalists as a win-win – but denounced by boaters and clammers because it will make some areas of the bays off-limits.
The proposal would lease areas of bay bottom to oyster farmers. Each plot would be smaller than five acres, and legislation would cap the total amount of leased land at 5 percent.
King said many of the participants at the event were distrustful that legislation and regulations would stop the expansion of the program beyond 5 percent.
People were afraid the state would come in and take more land in an effort to make the bays private, King said. Recreational boaters and clammers want to keep the bays open to the public with few restrictions, she said.
"About half of the people at the event were in favor and half were opposed," King said. "I think some of the main concerns would be better to address through legislation, instead of through regulation, because they were so suspect of regulation."
She said, "it seems like a great plan, but I want to be cautious and get some answers to some of the concerns."
Golob and Chris Virginski, a commercial clammer from Lewes, said even if growing oysters will clean up the bays, they are still against the project.
"The water is cleaner than it's been in years," Virginski said, who has been able to see his feet in waist-deep water in the bays. He said leasing bay bottom will take the bays away from the public.
Golob said the bays are already so shallow in many places that the oyster cages would have to be at least 150 feet off shore to be in deep enough water for them to survive. He said if the cages are that far from shore, it could eat into waters boaters enjoy using for fishing and clamming.
He said boats would have to avoid these areas or risk damage to a propeller.
Golob also said the state will likely place buffer regulations on the leased bottom to protect the oyster cages from boaters.
Bason said he thinks boaters will be allowed to fish right next to oyster cages, but many of the regulatory details will be worked out during legislation and by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control if the aquaculture proposal passes.
"There is no mention of any proposed buffer around aquaculture lease areas where any activity would be further regulated," Bason said after researching the proposed code after the meeting.
In addition to filtering water, the oyster cages will also establish habitat for fish and other bay organisms, Bason said.
Bason said the areas chosen for oyster leases are isolated and not prime clamming or boating locations.
He said if 56 acres are leased, that would be less than 1 percent of the bays. Bason said a cap would be placed on the leases so that they would not take up more than 5 percent of the total 22,000 acres of bays.
"If we had an industry the size of Rhode Island's, about 160 acres, we could be having a big impact on the bays; we could be filtering 9 percent of the water," Bason said. "This actually generates revenue, that's what makes it so attractive."
Oyster farmers see benefits
Robert Robinson of Georgetown wants oyster farming in the bays because he hopes to get into the oyster business.
Robinson, a member of the team that brought the aquaculture proposal to the Legislature, said the program would benefit the bays and provide another local product.
"It's sad that there is so much division," Robinson said. "All of us on the team had the best interest of the bay in mind."
Robinson said if legislation is passed, he plans to apply for a lease to raise oysters in the bays.
"As someone who wants to do aquaculture, some of the spots designated are not where I would want to put an oyster farm, but I respected the fact that the commercial clammers, recreational fisherman and all the tourists that come down have certain needs," Robinson said. "We were just looking for a little part of the bay."
He said the industry will generate fish and bay grasses as over time, the oyster cages turn into artificial reefs. Having oysters growing in the cages will also add to the natural oyster population as baby oysters migrate from the cages into the bays.
"I'm going to try to make a go of it, and it may not work," Robinson said. "But if you've ever tried a Rehoboth Bay oyster – they are delicious."
Robinson said he would be proud to sell a Delaware oyster and would be proud to see a Delaware oyster on the menu at any restaurant.
Legislation filed May 30
Oyster farming legislation was filed in the House May 30 by Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.
Schwartzkopf said he expects House Bill 160 to reach the House floor when session resumes Tuesday, June 4. From there it will be assigned to a committee.
“I think it will get through,” Swartzkopf said.
All state legislators have been receiving emails generated by Change.org, a website that allows residents to sign petitions electronically. Once someone signs a petition, the website sends emails to legislators, Schwartzkopf said. But the petition is inaccurate, he said.
“The email does not stay with the truth. It says aquaculture will ruin the bay, that it's harmful to clammers and boaters and that it will hurt small businesses and people will lose jobs,” Swartzkopf said. “If I didn't know what was going on, and I saw the petition, I would sign it.”
He said some people who signed petition are from Florida, New York and Kentucky. Signers from Millsboro, Dover and New Castle are also on the list, which as of May 22, contained 104 signatures.
“If you are opposed to something, it is easier to lie about it and get people to sign a petition,” Schwartzkopf said. “At this point, I don't know how widespread the petition is.”
Debra Bouchaud of Millsboro writes on the website, “The bay is a recreational area. Like a park. Preserve our park!”
Schwartzkopf said many residents have heard presentations by the Center for the Inland Bays and Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and most have walked out in favor of the project.
“I don't see any downside to the proposal,” he said. “Oysters clean gallons of water per day. I like that it will help clean up our bay. It will create jobs and a local product.”
Bason of the Center for the Inland Bays, said response from presentations on the initiative have been positive, but the measure will need broad support to become law.
Most of the areas proposed for oyster beds are small and isolated, Schwartzkopf said. Cages holding the oysters will sit on the bottom, and the areas will be marked, similar to the way crab pots are used in the bays.
The bill states that one acre of leased bottom could produce 750,000 oysters, which could filter 15 to 40 million gallons of water each day.
The proposal would limit the amount of bay bottom that could be leased, but it estimates that with 160 acres, shellfish could filter 9 percent to 22 percent of the total water in the Inland Bays.
According to the bill, if the recommendations by the Center for the Inland Bays are passed without change, 261 acres or 2.8 percent of Rehoboth Bay, 125 acres or 1.3 percent of Indian River Bay and 227 acres or 10 percent of Little Assawoman Bay could be leased to oyster farmers.
Schwartzkopf said a bipartisan group is working on the bill, which will also be introduced in the Senate in coming weeks.
Online petition collects signatures
The petition, signed by 104 people from across the globe, states, “Please help stop oyster farms from taking over our bays and destroying our recreational waterways. Oyster farms constrains and restricts recreational boating and fishing areas that result in a reduction of tourism. This will have a major impact on our local businesses that cater to the public ultimately putting them out of business. Landowners and homeowners are equally affected. Save our bays, businesses and homes.”