Experts support rebirth of state aquaculture industry

“Shellfish Aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays: Status, Opportunities, and Constraints” was a topic at the Center for the Inland Bays’ board meeting this past week, in the form of a presentation offered by Ed Lewandowski, past executive director of the Center who now works for the University of Delaware in its Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service. Lewandowski presented it on behalf of John Ewart, aquaculture specialist for the program.

Aquaculture is husbandry or controlled cultivation of aquatic plants and animals, and Lewandowski was talking specifically about the potential for oyster production in the inland bays.

He presented information gathered from the June 2011 conference on aquaculture held in Rehoboth Beach, sponsored by the CIB, the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Delaware State University and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

Lewandowski reported that, while commercial fishing has held steady since the 1970s, aquaculture production has risen – especially in the last two decades. China is the top aquaculture producer, with 67 percent, followed by India, Thailand and Indonesia. According to the FAO State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, carp are the top-produced species, followed by oysters and clams. He reported that in the U.S., East Coast shellfish is a $100 million industry, with 1,000 farms, but Delaware has none.

He reported that, in the 19th century, oyster harvesting was so profitable it was called the “white gold” of Delaware, but by the 1960s the oyster disease MSX had destroyed the industry in the inland bays. He said there was a relay of oysters from Delaware Bay and tributaries that occurred until the 1970s, with the last lease planting made in 1978.

“All the bottom leases reverted back to state and public ownership in 1979,” he added.

In 2003, the Center for the Inland Bays started its oyster gardening program, in which volunteers help out by taking oyster spat and cultivating them into adult oysters. It is both environmentally helpful in that a single oyster can filter 15 to 50 gallons of water each day and helpful to the oyster growth in general in the inland bays.

“The harvest of 3,750 oysters (15 bushels) compensates for the annual nitrogenous wastes produced by one person leaching into the watershed,” he noted. In addition, Lewandowski reported that thousands of acres of barren bottom have been turned into productive fish habitat through oyster farming.

More importantly to some, however, are the potential economic benefits of oyster farming.

Lewandowski reported that, in Virginia in 2010, there were 73 farms encompassing 6,569 acres and a $30 million clam and oyster industry resulting in 186 full-time jobs and 180 part-time or seasonal positions. Rhode Island has also seen oyster harvesting grow at about 30 percent each year since 1996.

“So, why not in Delaware?” asked Lewandowski rhetorically. “There are no systems or structures in place,” he stated.

He explained some of the legal restraints on shellfish harvesting and some of the requirements.

“There has to be a shellfish survey, and there was one in the 1970s; two public hearings, and one was held in 1979 — so we only need one more! And there has to be a concurrent resolution by the General Assembly to approve a shellfish management plan,” which he said was submitted in 1979 but never fully approved.

He also reported that the Division of Fish and Wildlife has the authority to issue leases of shellfish bottom, except within 1,000 yards of natural shoreline and except on natural oyster beds.

Lewandowski showed a graph of the vast potential that that could translate into in the Rehoboth Bay.

E.J. Chalabala, restoration coordinator for the CIB who has headed up their volunteer oyster-gardening program, spoke on some other issues concerning aquaculture. He identified other challenges as conflicting with other stakeholders, such as recreational and commercial fisheries, recreational watercraft, waterfront and “NIMBY” or – not-in-my-back-yard attitudes.

But the staff at the CIB is optimistic, considering the environmental and economic potential that exists.

Chalanbala reported that the “next steps” for the CIB are the formation and meeting of the Shellfish “Tiger Team.” They plan on reviewing the regulatory and socio-economic challenges, as well as the opportunities for economic development for a revived industry in the inland bays.

Both speakers emphasized to the board and others in attendance that they should think of the “three E’s”: environment, economy and employment.

“It’s a no-brainer,” concluded Chalabala. “We are the only state in the country that borders an ocean that does not have commercial aquaculture.”