Federal funding granted to support Delaware aquaculture

Last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) joined local and state officials, and representatives from the University of Delaware and the Center for the Inland Bays to announce two federal grants to support the development of oyster farming in Delaware’s Inland Bays.

“These grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce and USDA Rural Development will look into the business potential for Delaware shellfish aquaculture,” said Carper. “Oyster farming is a win-win for Delaware, since oysters improve water quality and farming will create another local industry that provides jobs. There is good work being done in Delaware by both public and private partners, and these grants will help further that research.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded $164,341 to the University of Delaware to study the economics of ecosystem services from aquaculture and estimating consumer willingness to pay for the oysters.

The study will be conducted by a team of scientists and economists and look into whether consumers are willing to pay more for the local oysters, with marketing showing those oysters having environmental benefits, using experimental economics. The study will also focus on the possible reduction of water production and cost savings associated with using oysters to meet water quality goals.

“We want to generate good scientific information that can be of value to the newly forming aquaculture industry here in Delaware,” said Sunny Jardine, assistant professor in the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science & Policy.

USDA Rural Development also awarded the University of Delaware’s Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative a $28,287 Rural Business Enterprise Grant to research and develop a branding strategy for Inland Bays aquaculture products that will be used by all the new shellfish farmers to brand and market their products to restaurants and other customers.

At the event on Oct. 3, Ed Lewandowski, UD Coastal Communities Development specialist asked everyone to look to the future — October 2016 — and what it would be like to see Delaware White Gold oysters on the menu at local restaurants.

“This local oyster is characterized as ‘plump, briny, with a sweet taste and firm texture.’ Sounds pretty good, huh?” he said. “Our Inland Bays shellfish branding project aims to bring to life that very scenario.”

Lewandowski said that, through the funding, the initiative hopes to develop a strong market share.

“We want to create that look, that message, that feel and, ultimately, that experience that will come from eating an Inland Bays oyster.”

In 2013, the Delaware General Assembly passed legislation that allowed for commercial aquaculture in the Inland Bays, with Gov. Jack Markell signing the bill into law in August of 2013.

“It’s something that is going to provide jobs, put people to work, and those people are going to have the opportunity and the predisposition to be stewards of the bays. Their success is going to be dependent on clean water,” said Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, which was instrumental in making the idea of shellfish aquaculture in the Inland Bays a reality.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control Secretary David Small said that all parties involved worked diligently to give everyone the opportunity to be heard.

“We went about that with a lot of due diligence. We worked with many stakeholders, consulted with other states around us… We were the last state in the area, really, without an aquaculture program, and this legislation enabled that.”

Small said the department’s primary concerns were to maintain the hard-clam population, and to not have a negative impact on waterway navigation.

“These bays are very, very heavily used by many, many types of watercraft, from kayaks to some of the powerboats you see behind us. We wanted to make sure we were able to identify locations where it made sense, away from major navigational waterways, so these plots could thrive in a safe and healthy environment.”

Bason said the hope is to eventually restore the oyster population in the Inland Bays to what it once was.

“The oyster population of the Inland Bays basically collapsed due to disease. There were hardly any oysters left in our bays.”

Working with area residents who live on bayside properties, oyster gardens have been created to see if oysters could thrive in the bays.

“They grew these little baby oysters on oyster shell to see how it would go. Ten years later, we had 130 sites spread around the Inland Bays. What John and the Center found was that oysters grew good to excellent all over the bays… It was very exciting. We knew there was potential here in Delaware for an oyster aquaculture industry.”

Bason said the potential clean-water impact of the oysters would be an amazing benefit for Delaware’s bays, along with the economic impact.

“One single adult oyster filters 20 to 50 gallons of water per day. An acre of aquaculture can have up to 750,000 adult oysters. We’re talking anywhere from 11 to 40 million gallons a day filtered by one farm. Farms are filters. Not only that, they are accumulating nutrients in their biomass as they grow. When they’re harvested, those nutrients are removed from the water.”

Carper said that having 1 to 4 percent of Delaware’s bays hosting oysters has the potential to clean up to 25 percent of the bays.

“Think about that,” he said. “This is another potential giant step for us to clean up these waters.”

Carper praised all those involved, stating that aquaculture in Delaware would not be possible without the support from those on the local, state and federal levels.

“You’ve heard the old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ Well, it takes a village to raise an oyster. Part of this village raising these oysters is the Center, part of it is the University of Delaware, part of it is the U.S. Department of Commerce… This is a team effort,” he said. “The good thing — we’ll not only end up with cleaner water but a lot more economic activity.”