Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay urges changes in DNREC aquaculture regulations
December 22, 2016
The Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay welcomes two aspects of an order issued by DNREC Secretary David Small on December 20 to govern aquaculture leases in the inland bays. However, the group representing 581 nearby homeowners in Fenwick Island remains concerned about two key unresolved issues that impact the long-term health of this bay.
The Secretary’s order permits use of a blanket Statewide Activity Approval process in considering applications to lease state subaqueous lands for shellfish aquaculture. SAA aquaculture permits will be issued for five years, followed by a renewal process.
One change in the proposed program that is supported by the coalition is the elimination of oyster farming in Little Assawoman Bay, where aquaculture would be restricted to growing hard clams.
The Secretary’s order also reduced, on a nonpermanent basis, the number of plots available for lease in Little Assawoman Bay to the 43 acres negotiated with the coalition over the past two years. This is a 75 percent reduction from the 118 acres proposed by DNREC in 2014 for this bay, which lies within Fenwick Island State Park in southeastern Sussex County.
“The first change needed in the current DNREC regulations is reduction of the excessive markings that are mandated,” said Diane Maddex, a founder of the coalition who is president of the Water’s Edge homeowners association. “Installation of up to 172 6-inch wide, PVC marker poles extending at least 5 feet above the water surface remains a possibility and a danger. Four of these poles on every acre plot, as required, will be a threat to recreational boating along the bay’s eastern shore, where the plots are located. Kayakers, paddleboarders, and novice sailors can’t be expected to maneuver safely around obstacles like these.”
Excessive markings should also be reduced, notes the coalition, because clams are grown commercially under the waterline, rather than in the floating cages used for oysters. Clam farming thus eliminates the need for poles to warn watercraft to avoid collisions with equipment on the leased acres.
Sally Ford, a Seatowne homeowner, added: “We are frankly disappointed that DNREC has ignored its own SAA regulations, which state that it ‘may adopt statewide activity approvals for specified activities with limiting dimensions and criteria which are considered to have minimal impacts on subaqueous lands, water quality, and habitats.’ These poles, driven into the sensitive subaqueous lands, are not minimal impacts.”
Jack Neylan, the coalition’s cofounder, addressed its second key issue. He pointed out the necessity of making permanent the plot reductions agreed to by Secretary Small. “The 75 deleted acres must be permanently removed from the DNREC aquaculture regulations,” said Neylan, vice president of King’s Grant, “and they must also be excluded from the blanket federal shellfishing permit the state has requested from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
The coalition has previously urged DNREC to revise its aquaculture regulations both to lessen the marking requirements and to hold the deleted plots in permanent abeyance.
DNREC should also step up water-quality monitoring in Little Assawoman Bay, advises the coalition. In September 2016 Michael Funk of Ocean City died from Vibrio vulnificus while cleaning his crab pots in the nearby Assawoman Bay. “Vibrio, a virulent flesh-eating bacteria occasionally found in shellfish, can cause serious illness if one ingests raw or undercooked clams or oysters,” said Jack Neylan, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee. Funk died four days after being infected.
It is expected that the DNREC Secretary’s order will be in force until the Corps of Engineers issues an opinion on whether to grant Delaware a nationwide permit authorizing aquaculture in its waterways. That may occur in the spring, two years after the public submitted comments on the proposal. The aquaculture program was passed by the General Assembly in 2013.
Numerous area environmentalists and fishermen have also questioned DNREC’s regulations on shellfish markers such as poles. Marking all four corners of a multiacre lease “is regulatory overkill [and] will significantly diminish local aesthetic considerations,” noted John W. Ewart of the Delaware Sea Grant Program at a 2014 hearing. At the same hearing, Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays—which developed the aquaculture program—conjured up “the spectra of a forest of PVC pipes that will be created by four pipes for each one-acre plot.” Robert Kotowski observed that the regulations “will discourage paddlers from using the bay because they will replace the pristine natural sites with a forest of ugly PVC pipes….” Steve Friend, a local fisherman, also criticized the requirement that leaseholders create a 20-foot navigation corridor in multiacre leases. “I think somebody is going to hit our equipment, and I think that that shouldn’t be allowed.”
Issuance of the SAA order follows a June 8 public hearing, during which most speakers—including members of the Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay, residents, local elected officials, and aquaculturalists—pressed the department not to lease the state’s subaqueous lands through this streamlined process. They cited the potential harm the plans pose to the bay’s natural environment and to its widespread recreational use by thousands of residents and visitors. “Why is Delaware inserting commercial businesses right in the middle of this bay, in one of our most fragile state parks, and requiring the drilling of destructive poles?” asked Diane Maddex at the June hearing. “Our state must see the value in saving our own irreplaceable natural areas and must find less intrusive ways to clean up our bays.”
The Coalition for Little Assawoman Bay (www.saveourassawoman.org) has worked since fall 2014 to ensure that any Delaware state aquaculture program respect the environmental and recreational qualities of Little Assawoman Bay, the smallest of the three inland bays.