The Senate unanimously passed the Delaware Aquaculture Act June 26. The bill allows the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to establish regulations for the leasing of acres in the Inland Bays. DNREC will determine costs of leases and lease terms.
Sponsored in the House by House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, the bill gained widespread support amidst opposition from recreational boaters and commercial clammers.
“I have grown up around the Inland Bays, so I know how much of a treasured resource they are to our community and how big of a tourist attraction they are,” Schwartzkopf said in a press release. “This is also a resource that can produce millions of dollars in unrealized potential. We have seen states up and down the East Coast benefit from shellfish aqua farming, and we have seen what works and what doesn’t.
According to the release, if signed into law, the bill would allow commercial shellfish farmers to lease one- to five-acre tracts of shellfish grounds in Delaware’s Inland Bays.
Farmers could lease up to five acres in Rehoboth and Indian River bays combined and could lease one to five additional acres in Little Assawoman Bay.
Leases would be renewable annually for 15 years, at which time the lessee could renew for another 15 years. Delaware-based residents, partnerships or corporations would be charged $100 per acre each year, while out-of-state farmers would pay $1,000 per acre annually, states the release.
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.
"Harvest of the shellfish removes excess nutrients from the Bays and farms will also provide the opportunity to grow oysters for the restoration of wild oyster reefs," Bason said. "The fact that this bill was made possible by the work of so many committed stakeholders is a heartwarming example of how a community can cooperate to restore the bays while improving the economy."
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.
The Center for Inland Bays study recommends several lease areas in each of the three Inland Bays. Under the recommendations, Rehoboth Bay would have 261 acres, or 2.8 percent of the total bay area, available for lease; Indian River Bay would have 125 acres or 1.3 percent available; and Little Assawoman Bay would have 227 acres or 10 percent.