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To help Delaware’s aquaculture industry deal with the financial impact of COVID-19, Delaware Sea Grant procured funds from the National Sea Grant office to help shore up the industry by purchasing oysters from Delaware Inland Bays growers for use in an ongoing restoration effort in Rehoboth Bay and for further growth in Delaware Bay waters where commercial harvesters produce the state’s wild harvest oysters.

Delaware Sea Grant COVID response

Photos by Mark Jolly

Delaware’s aquaculture and tourism industries receive help from Delaware Sea Grant during COVID-19 pandemic

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit Delaware, many industries felt the negative impacts that accompanied the virus and the subsequent lockdown. Two areas that were particularly susceptible to the economic ripple effects caused by the virus were Delaware’s aquaculture and tourism industries.

Changes within the restaurant industry caused by COVID-19, such as prolonged closures and decreased seating capacity, created a bottleneck between seafood producers and consumers, which significantly affected seafood sales in 2020.

Likewise, the tourism industry, which has long been one of the pillars of coastal Delaware’s economy and typically generates $2.1 billion annually in visitor spending while supporting 19,000 jobs, was hit hard by COVID-19, which caused people to become reluctant to travel out of state.

To help offset some of the losses felt by these industries in the first state, Delaware Sea Grant (DESG) procured funds from the National Sea Grant office to help shore up both industries.

Ed Hale and Dennis McIntosh, aquaculture specialists for DESG, led the effort with regards to the aquaculture and shellfish industry while Ed Lewandowski, who works in Coastal Community Development for DESG and is coordinator of the University of Delaware’s Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative, helped Southern Delaware Tourism with a marketing campaign to bring people back to the Delaware beaches.

Direct seafood sales

To help seafood producers shift sales directly to consumers, DESG created a webpage to help promote local, sustainable seafood options and connect the public with seafood providers. 

“When Covid hit, it really turned up the need for that type of information because essentially all the restaurants and fish auction houses closed and shuttered up and they weren’t buying anything,” said Hale. “So everybody moved to direct sales real fast. Almost overnight. And our striped bass fisherman started to get in contact with me and they said, ‘We can’t sell anymore. What can you do to help us?’ ”

The Delaware Sea Grant contribution provided economic benefits to the aquaculturists and commercial fishers, as well as ecological benefits to Rehoboth and Delaware Bays. Chris Petrone, director of DESG Marine Advisory Service, was on hand recently to help with the effort.

The website was created by Kevin Liedel, digital communications specialist with DESG and UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, who Hale credited with getting the website up and running in a timely fashion. 

Hale, for his part, went to work collecting information such as the names and contact information for all of the seafood providers who wanted to participate. 

DESG ran advertising campaigns in the summer and fall to promote the webpage and seafood consumption, especially of Inland Bays Oysters.

“It was really just a big effort to try and get consumers a place where they could find that information,” said Hale. “I’ve got a lot of feedback from commercial fishers and from shellfish growers about how happy they were to make contact with people.” 

Community seafood

To further develop a consumer base, DESG implemented a community seafood purchaser network, similar to a farm-share program, where DESG collected and relayed consumer demand directly to aquaculturists and commercial fishers and hosted pick-up events, providing supplier exposure and generating more than $7,000 in sales over 10 events. 

Hale said he started out with a small group of fishers, and he even hosted one of the early events out of the back of his truck in his driveway. It eventually grew to where the pick-up events were hosted in the parking lot of the Crooked Hammock restaurant in Lewes.

“When I first started sending out the information, I only had five or 10 people participate; now we have a list of more than 100 people that participate,” said Hale. “We’re essentially developing a localized seafood source and that has been pretty cool because there is no market around here for local seafood, which perplexes me. We have a lot of oysters for sale, a lot of hard clams and in addition to that, we have a lot of small-scale fisheries that can supply really fresh and local products. So we’re kind of hitting that niche.”

Additionally, DESG purchased 75,000 farmed oysters from aquaculturists for use in an ongoing restoration effort in Rehoboth Bay and for further growth in Delaware Bay waters where commercial harvesters produce the state’s wild harvest oysters. This provided economic benefits to the aquaculturists and commercial fishers, as well as ecological benefits to Rehoboth and Delaware Bays.

Dave Beebe and Dan Fosnocht run the Rehoboth Bay Oyster Company, which has just shy of a half a million oysters growing in five acres leased from the state of Delaware in Rehoboth Bay. Beebe said that Hale and DESG have been an incredible help during these turbulent times. 

“We had preliminary discussions with restaurants and some wholesalers, and everything was more or less lined up. They were ready to buy our oysters,” said Beebe. “When COVID started hitting in the spring, that was right when we had a barely marketable oyster, and then everything shut down and it all basically fell right through the roof.” 

Beebe, whose company participated in the community seafood purchaser network, said that Hale called him up and offered to buy 12,000 of their oysters to ship up to Delaware Bay, which was a huge help to his company. 

“We sold them 12,000 oysters and we shipped them on a pontoon boat in one trip,” said Beebe. “It helped everybody. It was a real proactive approach to the dilemma that all of us aquaculture guys were having. We lost our markets and we had too many oysters, and Ed said, ‘Hey, I can fix that.’ ” 

Delaware tourism

To help with Delaware’s tourism industry, Delaware Sea Grant provided funds to support a regional marketing campaign by the Southern Delaware Tourism Office to promote safe, timely travel back to coastal Delaware in a responsible manner. 

The digital campaign focused on visitors within a 2.5-hour drive of southern Delaware and directly resulted in more than 240 hotel bookings. 

These bookings are critical for the Southern Delaware Tourism office, which is primarily funded by the state of Delaware’s accommodations tax. 

“We were in a predicament, and we still are to some extent, but in the early days of the pandemic, when uncertainty was at an all-time high, we were really wondering, ‘How are we going to operate? How are we going to reach out to our travel markets?’ ” said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism. “We needed to market ourselves, but we didn’t have the resources. That’s why this grant from Sea Grant was just such a saving grace.”

DESG has long supported Delaware’s tourism industry and Lewandowski said that when COVID-19 hit, he thought it would be important for Sea Grant to invest some of their resources into a high priority area such as coastal tourism. 

“Our funding initiative provided the industry the support and assistance that it needed to help them develop the marketing campaign while relieving some of the financial pressures they were facing,” said Lewandowski. “That availability of immediate funding placed DESG in a unique position to be able to respond to that need and to strengthen our partnership with Southern Delaware Tourism.”

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