Aquaculture map filling up

Bacteria could take Indian River Bay sites out of play

Date Published: 
January 5, 2018

Oysters are coming, and local entrepreneurs are plotting their futures.

But even as the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) adds names to the state’s aquaculture map, officials said this week that 91 previously approved acres will probably be removed from shellfishing, due to bacteria levels.

“Based on new water-quality testing methods and potential water-quality impacts to the upper Indian River Bay, it is likely the … area may become classified as a prohibited harvest area within the next two years,” said Michael Globetti, DNREC spokesperson. “If this area becomes designated as prohibited for the harvest of shellfish, it will no longer support shellfish aquaculture.”

That may explain why only two people applied for acreage on the west side of the Indian River Bay.

“Any aquaculturists applying for leases [there] should understand that this area may not function as a viable aquaculture area in the future,” Globetti said.

The area is located between the mouths of the Indian River and Pepper Creek, both of which are in the red for bacteria levels, which means shellfishing would be prohibited. Most of Delaware’s smaller waterways are considered “impaired,” due to various toxicants, nutrients or bacteria. Aquaculture sites were first proposed by the Aquaculture Tiger Team, which the Delaware Center for Inland Bays created to research the subject.

Human and animal feces are the most common concerns in this situation, especially when the inland bays serve a Sussex County watershed that includes poultry farms, areas of fertilizer application and septic tanks. There’s also vibrio bacteria, which can appear when waters remain warm.

Other Indian River sites were pulled off the table in 2016 after public outcry encouraged the State not to pursue 24 acres in Beach Cove, located in the southeast corner of the bay.

Ultimately, 343 total sites were made available in the Rehoboth Bay (209 acres), Indian River Bay (91) and Little Assawoman Bay (43). Although the Little Assawoman sites are full, each applicant can still request up to 5 acres total between the Indian River and Rehoboth bays.

Overlooking the water near Indian River Inlet from their headquarters, staff at the Center for the Inland Bays have championed the cause since the idea was first proposed.

“We’re very excited to see the aquaculture industry get started in the inland bays, and we think it’s going to be a great thing in the long-term for water quality in the bays,” said Marianne Walch, CIB science and restoration coordinator. “I think that there’s going to be a period of adjustment and transition as the aquacuturalists and the State figure out how to move forward.”

“There could be shellfish gear and seed in the Inland Bays as early as this spring/summer,” Globetti said. “The next step for each applicant or lessee depends on where they are in their timeline.”

Walsh said a few poles marking aquaculture sites are already visible in the water. One person has officially completed the lease. Most sites have been claimed by the lottery winners but are still “pending.” After submitting the paperwork, application fee and requesting their sites, lessees still need to submit insurance information and a performance bond; survey and mark the lease area boundaries; purchase or build gear; arrange for seed, or spat; and possibly hire a crew.

After the springtime lottery yielded nearly 60 applicants, DNREC re-opened leasing on Dec. 5. Currently, people can still apply on a first-come, first-served basis for remaining spots.

Applicants were mostly Delawareans, with a few from Maryland and Pennsylvania and one from Washington state. Several dozen sites are still available. Since Dec. 5, fewer than 10 people put their names in. Mid-week this week, 12 acres were still available, along with another 8 acres that need to be sampled for hard clams, and 84 acres in the Indian River section.

Applicants have a year to submit the additional paperwork to DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife.

“The lottery participants had one year from the date of the initial lottery to submit a completed and accepted lease application to the Department,” said Globetti. “The acres are ‘pending’ because they have been selected by lottery participants, but either the participant has not yet submitted an application for the lease, or the lease has not yet been fully executed.”

People don’t have to stick to those sites. They can apply for other corners of the inland bays. But Delaware already did the legwork for state and federal permits for the pre-approved shellfish aquaculture development areas (SADAs).

Interested parties should keep an eye on DNREC’s interactive map, which includes locations, lease status, shellfish advisories and other updates. Details are online at DNREC’s Shellfish Aquaculture webpage at, or by calling the Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 735-2960.