Aquaculture still open to public comments

Date Published: 
April 1, 2016

Now is the time to submit final comments about the creation of commercial shellfish aquaculture in the inland bays.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control announced that it only seeks to include 343 acres as “Shellfish Aquaculture Development Areas” (SADA) in the inland bays, instead of the 442 acres originally proposed.

Currently, public comments are being accepted for the Statewide Activity Approval permitting process, being reviewed by the Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands Section. The SAA would facilitate the issuance of permits for commercial shellfish aquaculture activities on public subaqueous lands in Delaware’s Inland Bays.

A public hearing will not be held unless DNREC Sec. David Small decides to, or he receives a written meritorious objection to the application. “A public hearing request shall be deemed meritorious if it exhibits familiarity with the application and provides a reasoned statement of the action’s probable impact,” states the public notice.

One group calling for a public hearing may be homeowners along the Little Assawoman Bay.

“There are a number of issues still pending … that we’ve been bringing up for a year and a half that weren’t addressed by this process,” said Diane Maddex of the Water’s Edge neighborhood.

“We may have been behind the scenes, but we’ve still been talking,” Maddex said of the Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay, a group of nine Little Assawoman developments opposing aquaculture as proposed in 2014.

“We think what the secretary and DNREC have done is a good thing because it shows they’re recognizing all the things people have been bringing up for the past year and a half,” Maddex said.

The owners of Coastal Kayak were afraid they’d have to eliminate their Little Assawoman sailing program, with aquaculture plots to the north and south.

“They had always left a small gap for us right in front of our beach,” said co-owner Jenifer Adams-Mitchell, but that didn’t seem enough for sailboats to enter or exit the beach at an angle. She was pleased, but shocked when DNREC completely eliminated the northern site. But she’s concerned about the shallow water.

“The south is still problematic for us. The easternmost plots are so incredibly shallow. Kayaks can’t even get through there at low tide,” said Adams-Mitchell. Due to southern winds, she typically recommends that kayakers paddle south in summertime.

Delaware State Legislature passed the shellfish aquaculture bill in 2013, seeing this as a way to create economic growth and help clean the bays (oysters are known to filter water impurities). DNREC was given the authority to create regulations and pick the sites for development.

“Having a smaller number of plots allows DNREC to go forward with aquaculture in the Little Assawoman Bay, but it will be a test of whether the oysters are viable there,” Maddex said.

But the coalition and Coastal Kayak aren’t completely satisfied with DNREC’s recent announcement. They’ll still submit public comments to DNREC this month. Maddex wasn’t ready to reveal the coalition’s official opinion yet. But coalition members have cited a number of concerns: the negative visuals of PVC markers and (potential) floating cages; loose debris that could wash ashore after storms; noise and water pollution from the fishing vessels; and an unknown impact on wildlife.

“We’re not totally persuaded the bays are clean enough to grow enough oysters,” and the shallow bay still freezes in winter, Maddex said.

The number of sites and proximity to shore were just two of their many concerns that have been addressed.

The 20-day public comment period runs until Tuesday, April 12.

Comments are due to Gayle Calder, DNREC; Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands Section; 89 Kings Hwy.; Dover, DE 19901.

Maps of the shellfish aquaculture areas suggested in the Statewide Activity Approval permit can be found in the SAA Shellfish Aquaculture Package online at http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries/Pages/ShellfishAquaculture.as... or by calling (302) 739-9943.

DNREC did not confirm a timeline for Statewide Activity Approval or when aquaculturalists might begin application process.

Before it can accept lease applications, DNREC must complete the expedited federal permit process from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But “there has been no action by our office,” said Corps biologist Ed Bonner.

The Corps had previously suggested DNREC remove Beach Cove from aquaculture plans, based on public desire to maintain vessel access across the center of the waterway which links opposite sides of the cove, especially during low tide.

In reality, individuals could apply to lease subaqueous lands anywhere in the state. However, the applicant bears the full burden of demonstrating that the proposed aquaculture site is compatible with navigation, commercial and recreational fishing, public water access and local ecology.

Much of DNREC’s permitting process was meant to streamline the application process, so individuals can pick aquaculture sites faster and easier.

“Maybe this will bring about a real debate or discussion about how we can truly clean up the bays,” said Adams-Mitchell. “I know they’re touting this as a way to clean up the bays, even though they’re putting the aquaculture part in the portion of the bays that are already cleanest, which they have to for consumption.”

But she hopes this leads toward a non-edible shellfish program in the tidal creeks, or reduction of septic systems and chemical fertilizers.