A bill to bring oyster farming to the Inland Bays passed the House unanimously June 11 despite opposition from Cape Region boaters and clammers.
Sponsor and Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach said the Delaware Aquaculture Act, House Bill 160, was released by the Natural Resources Committee June 5 prior to passing the House.
It now moves onto the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere.
If the bill wins approval and is signed by Gov. Jack Markell, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control would be charged with leasing certain acres of bay bottom to commercial oyster farmers and with developing the necessary regulations.
During the June 11 meeting of Sussex County Council, council members generally supported the legislation.
If the bill is passed, the council urged legislators to require public input before the state awards leases on land. Council members want to ensure aquaculture will not negatively impact recreational and boating attractions that bring thousands of visitors to Sussex County.
"We might want to be careful when we just sit back and allow a regulatory agency to lease out a chunk of land, even though it's under water," said Councilman George Cole. "It ought to be like other things; make sure it's put in the paper so people have an opportunity to comment on it."
Councilman Vance Phillips said, "From the presentation that I saw, I think most of the questions and concerns are covered. If the Center for the Inland Bays is supportive of it, I think it's possibly a good thing, from everything I've seen."
The proposal is popular with many environmentalists because oysters filter pollutants out of bay water, improving the health of the bays, and the program will build a new industry in Delaware.
In addition to filtering bay water, oyster cages used to raise oysters will also establish habitat for fish and other bay organisms, said Chris Bason, director of the Center for the Inland Bays in Rehoboth Beach.
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 leased acreage would be capped so leases would not take up more than 5 percent of the total 22,000 acres of bays.
Chris Virginski, a commercial clammer from Lewes, said clammers are against the proposal because leasing the bay could lead to less recreational area for fishing and clamming.
Virginski said many residents and users of the bays do not trust the state will limit total leased acreage. He said he's seen areas in Virginia where residents can no longer use the bays because it is all leased.
An online petition in opposition to oyster farming in the bays has received 132 signatures.
For more information or to view a copy of the bill, go to House Agenda at http://legis.delaware.gov.
- Cape Gazette reporter Nick Roth contributed to this article.