Del. Aquaculture Order’s Uncertainty Sparks Concerns

FENWICK ISLAND – The Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay, a group consisting of eight communities, is urging officials to change two aspects of aquaculture regulations after a statewide leasing process was approved last week that will facilitate commercial shellfish farming.

David Small, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) secretary, said the approved permitting process will make it easier and faster for commercial start-ups to lease portions of regulated subaquatic land, aptly named Shellfish Aquaculture Development Areas (SADA), and will restrict and regulate activity in Delaware’s three inland bays — Rehoboth, Indian River, and Little Assawoman.

“It is an inherent incentive to use areas adopted by statewide approvals,” Small said. “Businesses look for certainty, and I think we have accomplished that through the statewide approval and the maps.”

In last week’s order, Small and the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife, the department responsible for issuing the permits, reduced the amount of SADAs available for lease in Little Assawoman Bay from 118 to 43 and completely eliminated all SADAs available for lease in a portion of Indian River Bay, known as Beach Cove, to appease nearby homeowners who feared the industry’s impact on both the bay and their property values.

Other plots of land, set aside by state regulations in 2013, will not be used in the abbreviated Statewide Activity Approval process, according to Small, and commercial interests will have to partake in a separate and lengthy permitting request to either harvest the excluded grounds or oysters.

Diane Maddex, founder of the coalition and president of the Water’s Edge homeowners association, said the secretary’s order to reduce the number of potential leaseholds is welcomed news for bayside residents, but added that the cutback will not necessarily stop watermen from requesting a permit to farm the excluded subaquatic grounds in Little Assawoman Bay.

“The 75 deleted acres must be permanently removed from the DNREC aquaculture regulations,” coalition co-founder Jack Neylan said in a statement. “And they must also be excluded from the blanket federal shellfishing permit the state has requested from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Maddex said residents within the coalition knew nothing about the aquaculture program and regulations until after it was adopted.

“A lot of people were invited to participate, but none of (the association’s) 580 homes were invited, nor did we know about it,” she said. “It felt like we were purposefully left out. So we came late to the game.”

Yet, Small said officials met all the legal requirements to inform the public of the adopted regulations, including news articles and media advertisements.

Since their realization, Maddex said she and Neylan formed the Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay and have worked closely with Small and other officials to reach a middle ground that will both encourage business growth and protect the homeowners and the surrounding bays.

“We’ve come a long way in two years, but there are a couple of things we want to tie down before he leaves office,” Maddex said. “He has recognized what the problems are, but he is handicapped by the law. But within the parameters, he is cooperative.”

However, the coalition takes issue with how aquaculture plots are marked within the bay.

The current plan, as outlined in the secretary’s order, requires each waterman to mark leaseholds on all with PVC pipes, which jut out of the water.

Maddex said the poles clutter the waterway for kayakers and boaters and detracts from the views.

“There are some sales, probably one or two, that did not go through when potential buyers found out about the aquaculture program,” she said, adding that the marking system would have a large impact on the bay system.

“Any homeowner who wants to put up a pier must have a DNREC hearing on that,” she said. “If individuals must do it, why not fishermen?”

Small said that the PVC markings remain in the regulation, but added that part of the order states DNREC’s commitment to review regulations, which include markings and eliminated areas, in the future.

“What we attempted to do was balance a lot of interests in this process,” Small said. “What we have done is create a mechanism to reduce plots in this process.”

Maddex said only uncertainty remains for the 581 property owners of the coalition, but added that they will continue to work with DNREC and other officials to tackle the two issues facing Little Assawoman Bay.

“It’s the uncertainty of it all,” she said. “No one knows when it’s going to happen and what it will look like.”

Currently, the coalition is working with a lobbyist and Beach Cove residents are working with a lawyer to address the uncertainty associated with Delaware’s aquaculture program. However, Maddex said residents located near Rehoboth Bay have yet to voice any complaints about the regulations.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.