Oysters make a comeback in Delaware thanks to state program

Last Thursday, the folks at George and Sons’ Seafood in Hockessin were happy as clams – or oysters, as it were.

“Wanna see Delaware’s first oyster?” George Esterling IV said with a well-earned grin. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

What does he mean by “Delaware’s first oyster”? After all, oysters have been harvested in the state for centuries. Well, this was a first of a different kind.

Spread out behind the counter of his Old Lancaster Pike store, resting on a bed of ice, were more than 1,000 “Dewey Beach Selects,” part of Delaware’s first batch of commercially produced oysters.

The oysters were grown as part of a state program started in 2013 with legislation by then-governor Jack Markell to help create a structured process to lease space in the Delaware Inland Bays for the culture of bivalve shellfish.

The program was developed in partnership with agencies including the Center for the Inland Bays and Delaware Sea Grant, which helps communities manage, conserve and preserve coastline resources.

According to Edward Hale, Sea Grant marine advisory specialist, two farmers now have active commercial sites and one site for the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays to conduct research.

There are 300 one-acre leases in the Rehoboth area, and 43 inland river sites for freshwater clams in Little Assawoman Bay, Hale said.

“We have 20 individuals with pending leases, in various stages of review and development,” Hale said. “But there is opportunity for [other] farmers.”

Hale said the program is still in its infancy, but he believes there is great opportunity for growth.

“The word of the day is ‘nascent,’” Hale said. “It’s a developing industry and we’re in the very early stages of economic development, but it’s poised to grow quite rapidly in the next few years.”

This is Chris Redefer’s first foray into commercial farming of any kind, and with two acres planted last spring in Rehoboth, his first crop is going to market.

“We have a five-acre plot and we seeded two last spring,” Redefer said. “We wanted to integrate it and see how the market is and see how it grows. We’re going slowly; we’re still learning the code.”

Redefer’s “Dewey Beach Selects” – a name he coined that connotes both their origin and their size – are marketed under the Inland Bays aquaculture brand.

With little experience on the market side– Redefer is a partner in the Rehoboth Bay Marina – he said there are plenty of variables, nuances and regulations to navigate.

“Our latest challenge is that, is there a market that will support it? Can the economy support a bunch of people producing?” Redefer said. “There are a lot of other oysters out there, and we don’t want to take anyone’s spot.”

In order to keep their leases, farmers have two years from the date of the lease to show they’ve seeded 100,000 oysters per acre, according to Hale.

“That regulatory threshold is there to prohibit people from sitting on an active site, and to foster active farming,” Hale said.

Hale noted that while state-leased farming is nothing new to Delaware – bottom ground leases date back to the 30s and 40s – the program has been reinvigorated by the 2014 legislation.

“It’s been done historically, because oyster diseases led to a serious decline in the 50s and 60s, and so that bottomed out the native population,” he said. “In the 70s, DNREC returned bottom leases to public ownership.”

There are still wild-caught oysters, Hale said, although harvest has diminished.

The tiny Kent County town of Leipsic – estimated population 180 – is preparing to celebrate the oyster’s comeback with its second annual Oyster Festival later this month.

Councilwoman and festival volunteer Deborah McKeever said the town is celebrating the historic waterman culture of the town as much as it is its titular bivalve.

“Leipsic is nearly 300 years old, and it’s been a working waterfront that entire time,” she said. “Its primary industries are crabs, oysters and waterfowl.”

Freshly shucked shells from the festival will be used for oyster bedding, McKeever said, to help propagate the next generation of oysters.

McKeever said the idea behind the festival was to shine a light on small working waterfront towns like Leipsic because of their importance to both Delaware and the aquaculture industry, and their economic contribution.

“Nobody really realizes that, because of all the things they bring up out of the bay by our working watermen, this is really a dying art,” she said. “The purpose is to say, we are here, this is what we do and this is why the watermen are important.”

For his part, Esterling would like to see the oyster take its rightful place as a Delaware signature item.

“I always hear people from Maryland talk about their seafood and their pride in their crabs,” Esterling said. “I want that same pride. I want people to be like, ‘Yeah, they got their crabs. But we got oysters.’”