Residents with waterfront lots join restoration efforts
SOUTH BETHANY — Delaware State University graduate student Brian Reckenbeil stood in waist-deep water with a bushel basket in one hand and several oysters in the other, distributing them along the rocks of Wynona Dawson’s property.
“I’m finding crevices between all the rocks and wedging (the oysters) in,” he said. “We’re stocking them in the rip-rap below the barnacle so they don’t freeze. Survival is the main thing.”
The project is part of the Center for the Inland Bays’ shellfish gardening project, which provides juvenile oysters and clams, and apparatus to raise them, to citizens with waterfront properties.
The goal is to restore a viable population of oysters to local waterways, thereby creating critical bottom habitat and increasing the filtering capacity of the bays’ shellfish population, according to the CIB website. A mature oyster can filter 35 to 50 gallons of water per day.
In the last two years, more than 200 volunteers from Rehoboth Beach to Fenwick Island have raised oysters, which start out as spat — tiny free-swimming larval oysters that attach themselves to dead oyster shells — and grow to what’s considered market size.
Currently, Reckenbeil and several other DSU students, along with CIB coordinator E.J. Chalabala, are transplanting the oysters from floats — submerged nurseries secured to piers, docks and bulkheads — to rip-rap located throughout the bays.
“Oyster gardens are proving oysters can grow anywhere in the Inland Bays,” Chalabala said. “(It’s) going fantastically.”
Dawson, who lives on Jefferson Creek in South Bethany, was anxious to get involved in the effort to improve water quality, and she’s seen the benefits of the project firsthand. Two years ago, she caught 14 flounder in her floats.
“It’s gotta help because (the flounder) wouldn’t come if the water was dirty,” she said, noting that cleaner water is also for personal benefit. “I used to go swimming out here and I’d like to do it again.”
The next step is to plant more oysters in the Inland Bays; the CIB received one million eyid, a disease-resistant strain of oyster, from Rutgers University, Chalabala said.
The oysters are put in a large tank of seawater, where the larvae attaches itself to bags of oyster shells. They are then distributed every other year to volunteer gardeners.
“We’re looking to collect upwards of 100 bushels to plant in the Inland Bays,” Chalabala said.
While no actually tally has been done, Reckenbeil said a bushel basket could hold between 250 and 300 oysters. In three years, 26 bushels of oysters have been distributed in Dawson’s rip-rap alone.
With volunteers like Dawson managing the gardens, the CIB hopes to restore the depleted oyster population in the bays.
“They’re looking to see really what the survival rate is in different locations,” Reckenbeil said. “Oysters definitely grow better in Fenwick than anywhere.”