Deception in oyster farming approval process
Coastal Point, February 12, 2016
Guest column by Steve Callanen
How on earth was the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) and the State’s Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) able to convince Delaware’s Legislature to unanimously vote to locate 442 acres of unsightly commercial floating cage oyster farms in the extremely shallow, environmentally unsuitable Inland Bays without the awareness of local stakeholder residents?
I have been trying to solve this mystery ever since Diane Maddex, president of Water’s Edge Homeowners Association (HOA); Jack Neylan, vice president of King’s Grant HOA; Dennis Klinzing, vice president of Seatowne HOA; and Jenifer Adams-Mitchell, co-owner of Coastal Kayak, attended a CIB Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting on Sept. 18, 2014, to complain about the adverse impact of converting many acres of highly recreational Little Assawoman Bay public waters into restricted commercial oyster farming zones for the benefit of private for-profit use, which includes out-of-state interests.
As a member of the CAC for the past eight years, I couldn’t understand why I was unaware of details of the oyster farming plan proposed by the CIB’s Inland Bays Shellfish Aquaculture Tiger Team and DNREC. Initially, I assumed that I was the only CAC member who had been asleep at the switch. However, I quickly learned that fellow CAC members who lived near the Inland Bays were just as much in the dark about this issue as me. Why had CAC members not been advised about this extremely significant, controversial initiative?
When local residents living around the bays learned about this commercial venture, they complained to state Sen. Gerald Hocker and state Rep. Ronald Gray. In an attempt to quell citizen outrage, Sen. Hocker convened a public meeting at the Millville fire house on Oct. 6, 2014, to provide 200 irate citizens with an opportunity to voice their extreme displeasure to DNREC Secretary David Small and CIB Executive Director Chris Bason regarding plans for establishing large commercial oyster farms in Beach Cove and Little Assawoman Bay.
It came as a surprise when Sen. Hocker and Rep. Gray confessed to being unaware of the specific oyster farm locations permitted by House Bill 160. Sen. Hocker, a co-sponsor of the legislation and life-long resident of the Ocean View area, voiced his displeasure with the following remarks in his Feb. 12, 2015, objection letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: “It concerns me greatly that this program has been undertaken without adequate studies of the impact to navigation, recreational uses, environmental impact, rights of the adjacent property owners, or the health and safety of the bay itself and the bordering properties.”
Rep. Gray followed suit, saying in his Feb. 13, 2015, letter to the Corps: “DNREC has developed regulations to implement the legislation for aquaculture but has not provided many individuals affected by the proposed industry the opportunity to comment. It also appears that though the department indicated that they made their selection of feasible sites through careful consideration; this needs to be reviewed again to ensure that a balance of the uses of the bays from all aspects is achieved. … I am not convinced that the public good and environmental protection are being protected under the current plan. Further investigation of the issues raised by the public in my district is warranted.”
Tiger Team member John Ewart, aquaculture and fisheries specialist with the University of Delaware’s Marine Advisory Service and the Delaware Sea Grant Program, identifies in a July 2013 report that the Tiger Team was aware that “waterfront property owners may view shellfish farms as potentially restricting their riparian rights to utilize adjacent waters or they may object to the negative aesthetic of having a shellfish farm and the sights and sounds of daily operations interfering with waterfront views and the enjoyment of their property.” He further advises, “It is important to emphasize that shellfish aquaculture is not a panacea for estuarine nutrient pollution.”
CIB’s 2013 oyster farming sales pitch, titled “Facts about Shellfish Aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays,” which was distributed to legislators to influence votes, did not contain verifiable data or a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.
The public was misled by reassurances contained in a State website posting, dated Aug. 28, 2013, which quoted Gov. Markell as saying, “Due to the hard work of Speaker Schwartzkopf, Center for Inland Bays and its partners, DNREC and the Department of Agriculture, we are establishing shellfish aquaculture in a responsible and beneficial way that respects the other activities in our bays.” The posting declared, “DNREC will be charged with ensuring aquaculture takes place in areas where it does not conflict with other activities, such as boating and recreation.”
After adjournment of the Nov. 19, 2015, CAC meeting, I was privately requested by CIB Board of Directors Chair Joanne Cabry to attend a private meeting with her, Chris Bason and CAC Chair Susie Ball. I declined Ms. Cabry’s invitation and requested that any communication with me be openly conducted at a future regularly-scheduled CAC meeting.
I received a letter dated Dec. 18, 2015, informing me, “The Board of Directors of the CIB voted unanimously today to remove you from the CAC. Your communications to CIB staff in violation of the CAC operating rules, your obstructive behavior at CAC meetings and your unwillingness to meet to discuss these issues have resulted in your removal from the CAC. Sincerely, Joanne Cabry, Chair, Board of Directors, the CIB.”
For the public record, I have never been guilty of “obstructive behavior at CAC meetings.” My concerns expressed about the manner in which the oyster farm legislation was promulgated without adequate public input was always done in a courteous manner, which can be readily verified.
My perceived offense was sending e-mails to CIB Board members in an attempt to document how the Tiger Team’s process was seriously flawed and how the Tiger Team and CIB violated a key provision of the Comprehensive Conservation & Management Plan (CCMP), i.e., the charge to “ensure, to the maximum extent possible, all planning and management activities related to the Inland Bays involve public participation, information and education.”
Other CAC members have been disturbed by the manner in which the CAC and CIB chairs have tried to suppress public comment and dissent. On Jan. 15, 2016, former state representative Shirley Price submitted her CAC resignation letter, which said:
“After much thought and great sadness, I am submitting my resignation from the CAC, effective immediately. For those who know me well, you know that I have a long history with the watershed and have worked to improve water conditions, while in office and out.
“From its beginning, the CAC was a conduit for the public to bring comments and become involved in the watershed. I find the change in the operating rules as it pertains to public comment unacceptable. I just can’t be proud to be part of a citizens group that makes it so difficult for residents of the watershed to come before us and offer their comments. I believe we should be striving to go in the opposite direction. The fact that we are not is very sad.”
The CAC is not an organization that welcomes open diversity of opinions or public conflict resolution, but rather one of bias and prejudice. The lack of due process by the Tiger Team’s oyster farm promotion process was especially galling because it failed to recognize freedom of opposition, which is a cornerstone of U.S. democracy.
Steve Callanen, a resident of Beach Cove, is a former member of the CAC and a retired engineer who worked at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division.