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Hatchery pilot delivers first oyster batch

Katie Tabeling

Two professors are working to lower the costs of oyster farming in Delaware’s waterways with a new pilot oyster hatchery. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ED HALE

LEWES — Delaware’s first oyster hatchery has successfully sent its first batch of oysters to commercial fishery off Port Mahon in the Delaware Bay within a year of starting operations.

The Delaware Sea Grant pilot oyster hatchery at the University of Delaware’s Lewes Campus provided 200 bags of shell, with 105,000 baby oysters. The next step, hopefully, is that they will continue to spawn and help boost the fledgling aquaculture industry in the First State.

“We’ve never done this before, so this is a big win. But we’ve got to make way more,” said Ed Hale, a professor at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science and Policy who oversaw the pilot. “Horn Point [on Maryland’s Eastern Shore] can make a 100 times as much. So this really is a starting point, but we have high hopes.”

The Delaware Sea Grant, UD and Delaware State University united in 2022 to build the oyster hatchery, a combination between a laboratory and a farm to help foster shellfish from spawn to adult life. Capacity is between 50 to 75 million oyster larvae per year in the next three years — or about 30% of the state’s demand.

How the Lewes facility operates is by taking a full-grown native Delaware oyster and storing it in holding tanks with saltwater, feeding it algae. Once the oysters reproduce, fertilized eggs are placed in a separate tank to grow in purified water. From there, the oysters are sent to a local commercial operation to grow for another two to three years until ready to be harvested.

It may sound time-consuming and simple, but Hale noted that oysters do have a 70% mortality rate. It’s also an expensive endeavor, since the payout can be three years down the road and start-up costs are around $50,000, even without disease testing.

The Delaware and Chesapeake Bay have both been a part of the local economy for centuries, with 2 million bushels of oysters harvested in the 19th century. Oysters are also beneficial for the health of waterways, as one oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water within a single day.

But overharvesting and diseases culled much of the population, dropping the First State’s share in the aquaculture sector. Delaware has cultivated as low as 12,000 bushels in recent years.

The hatchery program is a byproduct of a law signed by Gov. Jack Markell in 2013, who hoped to open the industry for economic and environmental benefits with water leases. But it has been slow to pick up – as of 2022, there were 18 of 336 acres of water leased out.

There’s been signs that Delaware is aiming to continue to invest in the research and economic development of aquaculture. Gov. John Carney signed $1.1 million for the hatchery program, which was included in the Fiscal Year 2024 bond bill by the legislature. Funding likely would be spent on personnel, infrastructure, equipment and a new building as needed, according to UD Director of Government Relations Evan Park.

For Hale, there is renewed hope of UD expanding the aquaculture program as well. There’s been tentative discussions for a fisheries and aquatic center.

“It’s too early, but the idea is that we could research different species as well as expand the hatchery. We have high hopes for this program as a way to aid the industry as well as the Delaware Bay,” he said.

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