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Shellfish Aquaculture Proposal Stirs Up the Bay

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The location of Coastal Kayak in Fenwick Island is near and dear to me. As children, my sibs and cousins and I spent hour upon hour boating and crabbing in Little Assawoman Bay. As a young adult, I worked several summers for the Chase family at what was then known as Fenwick Sail. I have seen amazing things there through the years, from sudden squalls and a brief waterspout over the ocean to rare wildlife and, once, miraculously, the merest glimmer of aurora borealis.

About 10 years after my last summer with the Chases, I met Jennifer Adams-Mitchell when she started at the old Sharks Cove restaurant where I worked. Jen and her husband, native Midwesterners, were new to the area, having migrated to Fenwick via Florida, and they were working hard to establish themselves as kayak eco-touring guides. The Mitchells have now owned Coastal Kayak for 16 seasons. I know they love that bay as much as I do, so I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain as they wait to see how a new aquaculture industry will affect their livelihood.

“We don’t have a problem with aquaculture—in the right place, of course,” Adams-Mitchell says. “We have a problem with the location and how the public was involved in the process.”

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is waiting for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow shellfish aquaculture in small sections of the Rehoboth, Indian River and Assawoman bays. The federal permit would allow the state to issue its own permits to individual oyster or clam farmers instead of forcing each prospective farmer to make the tedious, time-consuming application to USACE.

The plan calls for shellfish aquaculture development areas: 118 acres clustered in three small sections of Little Assawoman Bay, 115 acres in two corners of Indian River Bay, and 209 acres over three areas in Rehoboth Bay. Some of the plots are situated near protected land. One 24-acre plot is situated offshore of the Beach Cove neighborhood, just south of Indian River Inlet. The largest of the Assawoman plots is adjacent to King’s Grant on the narrow strand between Fenwick and South Bethany. Coastal Kayak would be flanked by two plots, one of 25 acres, the other of 20, that could restrict the passage of its boats.

Shellfish aquaculture appears to be a very good thing, a “sweet spot,” says Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, where improvement of water quality in the bays provides an economic boon to the area. I know Bason through environmental volunteerism, and I know his efforts to promote shellfish farming—in the only coastal state that has no aquaculture industry—to be sincere. His charge is to find ways of improving the bays in the most cost-efficient ways.

Filter-feeding shellfish remove nutrients that deplete the water of the dissolved oxygen all marine life needs to survive. Healthy oyster reefs are associated with higher water quality and greater biodiversity. Even when confined to small areas, that’s a benefit to the bays overall, a natural solution to man-made problems—problems everyone who lives around the bays has contributed to in some way by commuting to the house, turning on a light, paving a driveway, fertilizing a yard, flushing a toilet, eating an ear of local corn or grilling a local chicken leg.

Opponents of the permit application—residents of Beach Cove and owners of other bayfront communities—have expressed concerns about the potential for noise, odor, impediments to navigation and visual pollution from the white PVC poles that are to mark each 1-acre shellfish lease plot. They worry about deleterious effects of their quality of life and their property values.

Most of all, they claim to have been excluded from the processes of studying the potential for shellfish aquaculture and the state’s required public comment process on the permit application. The most suspicious of detractors believe the state pulled a fast one on them.

I’m not naive enough to think that, sometimes, someone isn’t pulling a fast one. But strictly speaking, no one is ever excluded. Hearings on all permit applications and plans for public property and resources—natural resources, infrastructure, utility rates—are advertised in the newspapers, on government websites, on signboards near the affected areas.

Given the sad state of the newspaper industry—and the digital information overload most of us still haven’t learned to manage effectively—that process seems antiquated now, yet short of personally notifying every stakeholder, that’s the way it is. Protecting your property requires a degree of vigilance. It always has.

Not that the notification process shouldn’t be retooled, especially in areas where the population is largely transient or seasonal. It should. Despite all our talk about the beaches being year-round places, there is still a distinction to be made between property owners and residents. Every time a big change is planned for the area, large numbers of people weigh in at the 11th hour, saying, “I just heard about this.”

That seems to make it easy to take the hardline and say, You should have paid attention. But it’s not that simple. When someone moves to the beach or buys a house to use part time, they are attracted by a unique environment and lifestyle that makes it difficult to think unselfishly—to think holistically—about best uses of resources, even if that should be our ethical obligation.

Which makes it a greater ethical obligation on any governmental body, from city council to the state to federal agencies, to find more effective ways to communicate proposed changes, especially in areas like the beaches, where people’s attachments are deeply emotional, and where absentee owners are not always watching the local papers.

The NIMBY groups have hijacked the headlines on the issue of aquaculture. That’s unfortunate. To me, the benefit to all outweighs the inconvenience to the few. It seems ironic that those who fear aquaculture will “transform the character” of the bays don’t realize that rampant residential development arguably did far more than any other single factor to change their character.

Allowing DNREC to manage aquaculture permit applications means the state can, should it choose, evaluate collateral impacts. Until the state can update the notification process, we should hope it does. My personal sentiment aside, no business would be as inconvenienced by aquaculture—as planned—than Coastal Kayak, yet as eco-tourism guides, no one is in a better position to show the public the benefit. 

 

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