[caption id="attachment_226684" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] 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[/caption]
LEWES — The Delaware Bay plays a major role in the regional seafood industry, with its iconic Delaware blue crab top of the list. But a new partnership between two local universities hopes to buoy the lesser-known oyster market.The University of Delaware, Delaware State Universityand the Delaware Sea Grant have united to build a pilot shellfish hatchery in Lewes, becoming the first of its kind in the state. Once up and running, it should have capacity for between 50 million and 75 million oyster larvae per year within the next three years, satisfying about 30% of the state’s demand.“Much like any other industry, there’s research and development that needs to happen to support it — and we have the expertise through our aquaculture research to do it,” DSU aquaculture professor Dennis McIntosh said. “The idea is to have the hatchery seed available to meet the industry and lower the start-up costs for farmers.”The hatchery, a combination between a laboratory and a farm that helps foster shellfish from spawn to adult life, will be a first for the First State. The facility in Lewes will take full-grown native Delaware oysters and store them in holding tanks with saltwater, and feed them algae. After the oysters reproduce, the fertilized eggs will be put in a separate tank to grow.The entire process involves technology to monitor water quality, temperature control, and maybe even the type of algae. Water should be running through the Lewes hatchery by the end of September, and expectations are to produce oyster larvae next season.Once they reach a certain size, shellfish farmers can put them in cages, and placed back in the Delaware Bay. It sounds simple, but Ed Hale, a professor at the UD School of Marine Science and Policy, said that oysters have a 70% mortality rate.“It’s also expensive to start oyster farming, because a single seed-produced oyster requires between $50,000 and $100,000 initial upfront investment. Sometimes your payout can be three years down the line,” Helm said. “When you’re dealing with a high level of mortality survival, you’re supposed to plan for economic bankruptcy every seven years.”There’s even more expense when it comes to testing oysters for diseases. McIntosh estimated testing for a batch of oysters — bought out of state — can run between $600 and $1,000. By growing a Delaware-based oyster population, that can cut down even more costs.In some ways, the Delaware Bay has been a part of the state’s economic engine for centuries, with about 2 million bushels of oysters harvested in the late 1800s. The Delaware Sea Grant estimates that the fishing industry provides more than $60 millionto the state’s economy even today.But with overharvesting and disease culling much of the oyster population, the Delaware waterways produce as low as 12,000 bushels of oysters today. Compared to New Jersey, commercial oystermen harvested about 124,000 bushels in 2017.In 2013, Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill to reopen the oyster harvesting to the three inland bays, in hopes to jumpstart the market as well as improving the water quality. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day alone.The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control first issued a lease to harvest oysters in December 2017. There are 336 acres of total shellfish aquaculture development areas between the Rehoboth, Indian River and Little Assawoman Bays. Today, 18 acres are held by 10 lease-holders, including nine commercial operators.There are about 40 hatcheries between Maine and Florida, with roughly six in Maryland, Hale said. But he said the signs are there for a flourishing industry: fishermen developed a direct sales market during the worst of the pandemic, and restaurants are showing interest in the new delicacy.“Consumer power is a big deal, and people are going into restaurants and asking for them,” Hale said. “We’ve had to be more resilient, because it’s been a tough road. But we’re getting there.”The pilot hatchery will end at some point, ideally leaving a robust oyster industry in Delaware. But McIntosh said that doesn’t mean the research ends either.“The other side of it is that there’s questions we’ll be able to address, like developing new species, and even developing the capacity to produce additional specifics like hard clams or bay scallops,” he added.