Aquaculture could be huge boon for Sussex County; Generates $119 million along East Coast

DOVER – A proposal allowing commercial shellfish aqua farming in Delaware’s Inland Bays, which would have significant environmental benefits and could generate millions of dollars in revenue, will be introduced in the coming days and heard in committee next week.

House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, whose district includes Rehoboth Bay and abuts Indian River Bay said the proposal is the result of a yearlong study led by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. The study noted that Delaware is the only coastal state with no commercial shellfish aquaculture, an industry that on the East Coast is valued at $119 million. It also noted that oyster aquaculture – which was the primary focus of the study – would help greatly in filtering millions of gallons of water daily, removing excess nutrients from the bays.

“I have grown up around the Inland Bays, so I know how much of a treasured resource they are to our community and how big of a tourist attraction they are,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. “This is also a resource that can produce millions of dollars in unrealized potential. We have seen states up and down the East Coast benefit from shellfish aqua farming, and we have seen what works and what doesn’t.

“That’s the beauty of this proposal – we aren’t moving into uncharted waters. It’s quite the opposite. We have a proposal here that will create jobs, produce a local product for our restaurants and clean our Inland Bays. It will create a new multi-million dollar industry in Sussex County. When was the last time that happened?”

Under House Bill 160, which will be formally filed Tuesday and heard in the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, commercial shellfish farmers would be permitted to lease one- to five-acre tracts of shellfish grounds in Delaware’s Inland Bays. Farmers could lease up to five acres in Rehoboth and Indian River bays combined and could lease one to five additional acres in Little Assawoman Bay. Leases would be renewable annually for 15 years, at which time the lessee could renew for another 15 years. Delaware-based residents, partnerships or corporations would be charged $100 per acre each year, while out-of-state farmers would pay $1,000 per acre annually.

According to the study, one acre of leased bottom could produce about 750,000 oysters, which can filter 15 to 40 million gallons of water each day. At 160 acres, shellfish aqua farms could filter nine to 22.5 percent of the total volume of water in the Inland Bays each day.

The Center for Inland Bays study recommends several lease areas in each of the three Inland Bays. Under the recommendations, Rehoboth Bay would have 261 acres, or 2.8 percent of the total bay area, available for lease, Indian River Bay would have 125 acres (1.3 percent) available, and Little Assawoman Bay would have 227 acres (10 percent).

The House Natural Resources Committee will meet Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Legislative Hall.