Oyster aquaculture isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, residents argue

After months of new oyster aquaculture regulations being hammered into shape, a group of concerned citizens are hoping to straighten that picture.

Calling themselves the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture, a group of homeowners along Route 1 and the Little Assawoman Bay wants Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control officials to delay implementing the aquaculture regulations, which were just approved in August.

They foresee aquaculture creating boating hazards for recreational bay users, restricted access to marinas and businesses, excessive clutter, noise pollution, debris and more.

The citizens attended the Sept. 18 Citizens Advisory Committee meeting at the Center for the Inland Bays. In a way, they were returning to the scene of the “crime,” as the CIB’s Tiger Team had done the initial oyster research in 2012, with multiple stakeholders. That data went to the state legislature for the 2013 bill and DNREC for regulation writing.

Public information sessions were held Jan. 30 and Feb. 26 in Lewes to help draft the regulations. Once the regulations were written, the public could submit feedback beginning May 1, with a public hearing on May 21.

However, some believe that the wintertime meetings weren’t sufficient for people who don’t live in Delaware in winter.

“A lot of people are away in winter, and no notification came to us,” said Diane Maddex, president of the Water’s Edge Condominium Association.

“One of the ironies of not being on top of this was I worked with [the CIB’s] Rick Eakle and thought, ‘What a wonderful thing.’ In my mind, I pictured a couple of fishermen lowering cages into the bay from a pier,” Maddex said.

Jenifer Adams-Mitchell said this could significantly impact her business at Coastal Kayak. Sailboats usually need an angle to exit or return to shore, but shellfish plots to the immediate north and south of her bayside beach could make sailing hazardous.

“If you happen to be near one of these oyster beds and you fall on it, it’ll be bad news [for kayakers, too],” Adams-Mitchell said.

With a majority of her business coming from repeat customers, “I can’t imagine going out and seeing whole sea of PVC pipes” makes people want to return. “We’re pretty sure it’s going to have a pretty big impact … and with Sussex County, tourism is our economy.”

“You’re putting a whole 10 percent of the bay off limits to us — most of it right where we would go out,” said summer resident Jack Neylan, vice president of the King’s Grant Condominium Association.

“I hate to sound ‘NIMBY’ [Not In My Back Yard], but what about real estate values?” Neylan added. He also mentioned the debris that could wash up after a major storm, plus the impact on wetlands wildlife. Having only seen paddleboards and kayaks close to shore, Neylan also wondered if the fishing boats could handle such shallow water.

“The fact that there was newspaper coverage is a joke. There was so little coverage of it anywhere that none of us knew what was going on,” another resident said. “I’m astounded the ones who sponsored it from our area didn’t have foresight or decency to notify property owners.”

The group of citizens said they wish DNREC had notified individual homeowner associations, rather than just putting the legally mandated public notices in newspapers.

Under the regulations, the eastern Little Assawoman Bay would have 118 acres in three major plots (containing one-acre plots in groups of 73, 25 and 20).

Indian River Bay has 115 plots (with 24 acres tucked between North Bethany and Cedar Neck Road, plus 91 near Dagsboro at the edge of Piney Neck Road).

Rehoboth Bay contains 209 plots (with groups of 120, 71 and 18, mostly near marshland).

Without seeing any visuals with the regulations, the residents said they envision hundreds of 5-foot PVC poles marking each corner of every acre, plus floating oyster cages and noisy boats and winches.

“I hope we can do something to really minimize this. I think aquaculture would be a great thing,” said Maddex, acknowledging that the bays need better filtration — a function of healthy oysters. “This isn’t the way to do it.”

They hope DNREC will test aquaculture in northern bays, reduce acreage in the Little Assawoman, set business hours that are less than 24 hours, reduce the visual markers and adjust clamming regulations. Ultimately, they said, they hope DNREC will slow the implementation of regulations and listen a little more. (Meanwhile, watermen had complained that the regulations were taking too long to write, and that they would get their cages in the water too late this season.)

In response to this sudden outcry, DNREC was invited to a public meeting Monday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. at the Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s fire hall.

State Sen. Gerald Hocker and Rep. Ron Gray are also inviting the public to an ice cream social, on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. in the Millville Fire Hall, at which David Saveikis and DNREC staff will discuss and hear from the public about the new aquaculture regulations and their implementation in the Little Assawoman and Indian River bays.