Delaware oyster farmers ask for changes to aquaculture regulations ahead of DNREC Public comment hearing
DELAWARE- Delaware Oyster farmers are calling for relief from DNREC on Aquaculture farming regulations they say are proving to be a steep barrier to entry for for farmers looking to grow local oysters in Rehoboth Bay.
“We have 89 acres that are open for cultivation but today we have just 10 in use, we started with a lottery of 59 farmers, just seven or eight of us are left,’ said farmer and head of Delaware Cultured Seafood group Mark Casey.
Casey tells us on average a farmer may have to interact with an oyster up to ten times from the time they are first seeded in an underwater crate to the time they can be fully matured up to two years later.
He says its an intensive job, that they are having trouble filling positions for, something he says is due to high start up costs, and is requesting relief from DNREC, in the form of dropping a mandate to have white floates for top floating Australian Longline style oyster cages.
“We have cages that are deep underwater we understand the need for the floats, but for the high cages, we have white plastic pipes, we have signange,” Casey said adding “The cost of a float is two or four dollars each is not a problem, but when you get a thousand of them, now you’re talking about thousands of dollars.”
Casey tells us the floats can also be cumbersome to use, adding difficulty to whats already a strenous one man job, an opinion shared by farmer Jessie Atkinson.
“The float gets tangled up in stuff, it fouls the gear, it’s just extra work and cost for the farmer, it slows down and it really doesn’t improve any boating safety,” he said.
An issue both men say is hurtin the industry, is the mandatory oyster seeding counts required by DNREC to maintain the aquaculture licenses, which ramp up to a required 100,000 oyster seed count by the third year.
Casey tells us that number is becoming unmanagable for seasoned watermen, and is alienating new people from working in the field completeley.
“That takes a lot of equipment, that takes a lot of cages, it takes a lot of cost and it creates a lot of work,” Casey said adding “the oysters have a gross cycle somewhere between six months and two years, So after you get done that first year and you plant your next hundred thousand, you still may have 50,000 oysters out there. Maybe you’ve lost 10%. So maybe you’ve got 45,000 oysters, but they’re big and they’re taking up lots of cages.” Casey said.
Casey tells is if farmers can’t keep with enough cages for all those oysters; due to cost, or labor shortages, the mortality rate amongst the oysters rises, hurting yields and negating the minimum requirement.
Atkinson said he’s seen newer farmers fall behind and give up first hand.
“If you get into it, you think you’re going to make a ton of money and stuff overwhelms and then you can’t sell your stuff at a market, a good market price, then you give up, you put your hands up, say I’m done with it, and we need every grower we can get out here growing,” Atkinson says.
Both men say they want to see a compromise at a lower 50,000 oyster minimum count to help attract new farmers, but they say the need for more farms and oysters staying alive in the bay goes beyond the businesses, arguign the bivavles serve an esssential environmental function.
“Oysters filter up to 50 gallons a day, so I think that this just the Rehoboth Bay at 60% capacity could take 35 million oysters a year out of the bay, that’s a lot of nutrients, that’s a lot of carbon tied up in the shell, that clarifies the water,” Casey said.
Casey tells 47ABC the oysters can counteract eutrophication, a process where nitrogen runoff leads to algea growths atop water that block out the sun and kill bottom grasses essential for aqualife.
According to Atkinson, he has already seen an improvement of vegetation and wildlife on his farm since the initial licenses were awareded in 2017.
“When I first came out here, there was hardly anything that I mean clam here or there, now you can hear the fish in the water back there because of all the grass, shrimp, that are that are in these, [The oyster farm] is like a big reef for the turtles, the starfish, the stripers, like a smorgasburg for them,” Atkinson says.
Casey tells 47ABC a recent regulation rule change proposed by DNREC is set to add adittional requirements on new farming operations, and did not make mention of the restrictions they are hoping to roll back.
A public comment period is scheduled to run until October 18th, with a virtual hearing on the regulations set for September 28th.
Casey says he and other oyster farmers hope DNREC can rollback the regulations, that he says are adding only costs.
“Reducing the planting requirement will cut the initial capital expenses of cages in half and help farmers grow into an operation, while hopefully enticing more farmers to get involved, while still avoiding individuals interested in leasing acres without engaging in aquaculture,” Casey said.
47ABC reached out for comment from DNREC who declined to comment on the oppen comment period, and reffered all interested parties to submit their experiences to the department.
Casey tells us he hopes a compromise can be made.
“We like DNREC, we need them they got us this far we are asking for more help.” he said.