Oyster farming has become an emerging business in Delaware, as the shell-clad mollusks serve as both a local delicacy and an important member of the ecosystem, filtering nutrients out of the waterways.
Permits to operate oyster farms come from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so seeing a working Inland Bays oyster farm was of interest to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a vocal federal advocate of the practice.
Coons set out on an oyster boat Sept. 2 with Alan Davis, who owns three acres of space with 100,000 oysters.
Davis said 30,000 of his oysters are large enough to go to market - he usually sells directly to market and to a few restaurants - with the rest growing. An oyster starts out as a seed, about as big as an adult pinky fingernail, and takes about nine months to grow to market size, he said.
The oysters are located in bags connected to a PVC piping system in the water. Davis said typically, oysters grow in groups, straight up out of the ground to get food, not unlike how mussels grow in the mud. When in the net, the tides tumble the oysters back and forth, allowing them to grow the same length vertically.
“It’s our job to keep them from growing together,” said Davis.
Davis said the COVID-19 pandemic has been very tough on aquaculture, as the restaurants that would buy the oysters have either been shut down or are at reduced capacity.
“We do have a backup with about several thousand oysters that we probably would have sold by now. We have a few good markets. We’re selling between 750 to 1,000 oysters a week. That keeps us up and moving, but it’s not what we would expect,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has taken notice of the hardship on aquaculturists. Secretary Shawn Garvin signed an emergency executive order Sept. 1 temporarily rescinding conditions related to active use and minimum shellfish plantings. The order is good through the rest of the year.
The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for a catastrophic loss in the shellfish sales market and a disruption of the shellfish seed supply chain, said Garvin in his order. Adoption is necessary to ensure the financial and operational viability of the shellfish aquaculture industry, individual lessees and associated shellfish resources, he said.
Davis said his father had been a commercial lobsterman for 25 years; he worked on the boat himself. When his father died four years ago, he left his son with some money, which Davis used to purchase a boat.
“I said, ‘What would the old man want me to do with an extra $10,000?’ I literally threw it overboard, which he would have liked,” Davis said.
Coons said, “The scale of this, how quickly this has grown from an idea to a reality, has been really important. When Alan said there were a million oysters being farmed here, I had no idea. That’s pretty remarkable.”