Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about shellfish farming in Delaware’s Inland Bays. After years of developing and passing regulations, farming has begun and the first oyster cages are now in the water. In the coming months, reporter Chris Flood will explore the ins and outs of the new industry.
A few weeks into being Delaware’s first commercial aquaculturist, Chris Redefer said the work is going well. “I’m going to be honest, it’s going better than expected,” he said on his way back to dock June 13. “We started with six cages in April, and now we’re up to 30. It’s all about the volume.”
Redefer said he’s been paying attention to progress made on shellfish aquaculture since discussions between the state and other stakeholders began in 2012. Legislation creating the new industry in Delaware’s Inland Bays passed in 2013, and after many rounds of figuring out where leases would be available, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control held the state’s first lottery drawing for those sites in May 2017; there were 58 applicants for 343 acres in Rehoboth Bay, Indian River Bay and Little Assawoman Bay. Redefer was the second person picked.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Redefer said he didn’t waste any time submitting the acreage he wanted to the state, strategically selecting his 5 Rehoboth Bay acres. He’s been manager of Rehoboth Bay Marina since 2004, and all the sites are about as close to the marina as possible, while still being spread out, he said. Redefer also has five acres in Little Assawoman Bay, but he’s focusing on using only three of the five in Rehoboth Bay. Things are all a big test right now, he said.
Redefer said modern GPS systems allow acreage to be sectioned off accurately, but he said he also knows how many Coastal Highway telephone poles he has to travel south to get to his location from the WWII tower in the Tower Road parking lot of Delaware Seashore State Park. It’s an old trick for people who might want to throw out a crab pot without using a buoy as a marker, he said.
Working the waters of the Inland Bays under this program is new, but the bays and aquaculture share a history. During a Clean Water Forum in June 2017, aquaculture specialist John Ewart said in 1943 more than 3,000 acres in Rehoboth Bay and 1,100 acres in Indian River Bay were leased for oyster production. He said clams were so plentiful in the 1950s, up to 17 million were harvested in one year.
This year, Redefer purchased a total of 160,000 oyster seeds, or spat, from Hooper Island Oyster Co. He said 150,000 spat were 6 millimeters in size and 10,000 were 20 millimeters, to see if he could grow any large enough to sell by the end of the season. He said, per the state program, spat have been genetically modified so it will not reproduce. “They don’t want anything being introduced into the bays that shouldn’t,” he said.
Redefer said the state is requiring aquaculturists to produce a minimum of 100,000 oysters per acre after two years, or it won’t renew the lease. The state doesn’t want people out there just sitting on it, he said.
As marina manager, Redefer was able to get some of the necessary equipment – boats and a winch – without too much expense. On his own dime, Redefer purchased new floating and sinking cages; new line to hold anchors and cages together, designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the bay; the spat; oyster bags with various sized holes; and other stuff – an estimated $20,000 worth altogether. He said he bought floating and sinking cages because he wasn’t sure which approach would work best.
Redefer said he and his crew, which is basically a few marina friends, are still honing the cleaning schedule, but basically, it’s every day or as often as the weather allows. He said it’s important to keep the equipment clean so water flows freely through the cages. Redefer said many times the work is “caveman work.” He said there’s nothing too special about it. It’s hard work, and a person gets stinky and dirty, he said.
According to a May 21 press release from DNREC, the new shellfish aquaculture program is expected to boost Delaware’s economy. The state agency cites an estimate from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration that in 2015 noting U.S. shellfish farmers produced $295 million in product. In that same release, DNREC describes shellfish aquaculture as an environmentally green industry because shellfish filter the water, getting all their nutrition from it. The filtering and feeding of the oysters can result in the reduction of excess nutrients such as nitrogen that cause algal blooms and decrease water clarity, reads the release.
Weeks into his new venture, Redefer said he didn’t know how the economics of the new program would work out, but he thought it would help the cleanliness of the bay. A lot depends on how many seasons his equipment lasts, he said.
“If I have to buy all new cages and other equipment every season, it’s going to be expensive,” he said. “But if we can grow oysters for more than one year with our gear, then we can make money, and clean the water.”