Photos by Maria Deforrest and David Beebe
Rehoboth Bay oyster farmers David Beebe and Dan Fosnocht bring briny goodness to Delaware’s restaurants and markets.
Behold the magic of a perfectly briny oyster on the half shell, nestled atop crushed ice, with a wedge of lemon standing at the ready. It is certainly one of nature’s most perfect bites.
Some enjoy slurping the meaty bivalve with its accompanying liquor right from the shell. Others use a seafood fork and dig out the tasty treat, placing it on a saltine with horseradish. Still others swear by just a squeeze of lemon before tossing it down the hatch.
No matter how you enjoy your oysters (even if you dream of a roasted oyster, perhaps with a bit of pecorino), you can agree that Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she created them.
David Beebe and Dan Fosnocht were out having beers a couple years ago in southern Delaware when they happened into a conversation about oysters with Chris Redefer.
Redefer, a Dewey Beach legend in his own right, is considered by many to be the OG oyster farmer of the current age. He was the first to bring Rehoboth Bay oysters to market when the state opened the bays to oyster farming.
“Chris was telling us about oysters and how great they are,” Beebe recalls. “And, well, I guess I like a project.”
Fresh off the boat
Beebe and Fosnocht decided to apply for their own oyster farming or aquaculture lease in Rehoboth Bay. After they received their first 1-acre lease in 2019 (they now have five leases, totaling 5 acres), they were off to the races.
“It’s a big learning curve,” Beebe says. “We are one of the few groups out there growing and harvesting, so we are always learning the best way to do things.”
Thirteen of Rehoboth Bay’s 14 leases are by commercial oyster farmers; the other one is a scientific plot leased by the Center for the Inland Bays. Together they equal 38 acres of water in oyster production.
Beebe and Fosnocht found an old pontoon boat, which they stripped down to make it suitable for oyster farming. They named her Sea Alice.
Neither Beebe nor Fosnocht have a background in aquaculture. Both were in the hotel industry, operating several hotels in southern Delaware over their careers. Beebe, 60, retired, calls Fosnocht the “tech and mechanical guru,” while he self-identifies as “just a crazy old man who likes to be out on the water.”
Out on the water, Beebe is in his element. He is growing his oysters both in floating cages and bottom cages. Each has its own benefits and risks. When it’s windy, the floating cages can be damaged or even lost. The bottom cages are more susceptible to predators. And each type of cage produces a different-looking oyster.
The floating cages are perfect for oysters that will end up on the half shell in restaurants. The regular tossing and cleaning of the cages results in a pretty oyster, he says. The bottom cages result in larger oysters, but they often come out in clumps and have darker shell colors. These are commonly used for shucked oysters.
In addition to harvesting oysters, Beebe has beehives, a Christmas tree farm, and a bait and tackle shop.
“There’s no telling what I’m going to get into next,” he says with a hearty laugh.
When restaurants shuttered early during the COVID-19 pandemic, Beebe quickly realized that he needed a new oyster distribution plan.
“At the time, we had only been harvesting oysters for a season, and the restaurant business was drying up,” he says.
He decided retail was the solution, and the pair opened Rehoboth Bay Oyster Company on Coastal Highway (between Rehoboth and Dewey).
“We have had lines out the door some weeks,” Beebe says. “Everyone wants oysters.”
If you’re wondering how a Rehoboth Bay oyster compares to other varieties, such as those from the famous Prince Edward Island, Beebe notes that the saltiness of the inland bays really finishes oysters with a pleasant brininess.
“These oysters are about the best you will have,” he says. “It’s perfect for someone who is about to have their first oyster, because they go down smooth with just enough saltiness.”
This summer, Beebe hopes to be selling both to restaurants and to individual customers at the store. “There’s never a shortage of demand,” he says, “just a shortage of oysters.”
Ed Hale, a professor at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science & Policy, says oyster farmers like Beebe and Fosnocht are providing several services to the state.
First, they are growing and selling an in-demand local product. Second, the oysters they grow in the inland bays are improving water quality and providing valuable habitat for marine animals, such as juvenile fish and crabs.
An individual oyster can filter about 45 gallons of water a day. Hale estimates the 14 current oyster farming leases in Rehoboth Bay filter up to 8 million gallons of water annually, based on the number of oysters planted and harvested.