Earlier this year, Donna and Jesse Atkinson had high hopes for their burgeoning oyster business, Delaware Delicious Oysters.
The Harbeson residents are growing 700,000 oysters in the Rehoboth Bay as part of the state’s aquaculture farming initiative, launched in 2018.
The entrepreneurs were ready to market their first harvest when the novel coronavirus came to Delaware.
“That’s been a struggle for us because restaurants and distributors are the main part of the market,” Donna Atkinson said. “We were going to sell 2,500 to one client alone, and then COVID hit.”
The Atkinsons are in good company. “Covid-19 has impacted us as our wholesale sales have slowed down, and shuck house sales have diminished,” said Chuck Gifford, owner of Tower 3 Oyster Co., located in Sally’s Cove on the Rehoboth Bay. “Our sales certainly have not reached our projections.”
Both small farms swiftly targeted consumers to help pay the bills. That’s also the case for many area fishermen.
The advantage: Consumers have access to seafood right from the bay or sea. The drawback: You must find the purveyors; you won’t find these items in the market.
The Delaware Sea Grant at the University of Delaware has made the task easier. The organization — which helps communities manage and conserve coastal resources — created a seafood supplier directory organized by the species.
“As a result of the shutdown, we saw a very precipitous decline in seafood sales,” said Edward Hale, the fisheries and aquaculture specialist for Sea Grant. “Most of the restaurant demand for oysters completely evaporated.”
Sea Grant was quick to organize the directory. “The public and the fishermen have responded well to it,” Hale said.
Sussex County residents were quick to respond. They say you can buy lobster, crabs, tuna and more. Many are on a customer list and get texts when seafood is available, often on a first-come, first-served basis.
Sea Grant is also testing a community-sponsored fishery group (CSF). Like a produce-oriented CSA, the process involves placing a bulk order that’s distributed among participating individuals. The group meets every few weeks in the parking lot of the Crooked Hammock Brewery.
“It puts consumers directly in line with seafood suppliers, which is a unique experience,” Hale said.
The CSF is currently closed to new members, but you can source products using the directory. Note that according to Delaware law, you must buy a whole fish. The purveyor cannot clean and break it down for you.
Perhaps that is why oysters, scallops and oysters are in such high demand. Just ask Roger Wooleyhan of Millsboro, who owns the Labrador Fishing Co.
The commercial fisherman sells lobsters, stone crab claws and fish in Lewes Harbor. Keep an eye on the company Facebook page, where he posts the date, time and selection. And be prepared to wait in line.
Before the coronavirus, Wooleyhan specialized in fish and conch, much of it headed overseas. When the markets dried up and packing houses closed, he put 500 lobster pots in the water.
“I wasn’t even planning on doing it this year,” he said of the lobsters. “It’s been the first spring that I haven’t fished in my whole life, and I’m 67.”
He’s been selling out of lobster so often that he’s buying more pots. Prices are typically $10 a pound. You might find lobster for less in the supermarket, but you won’t find it as fresh, he noted.
Local oysters, meanwhile, are higher in salinity, given that the Rehoboth Bay is saltier than the Chesapeake Bay.
“They have a salty, sweet taste — very flavorful,” Atkinson said.
Gifford said consumer sales have been so strong that he plans to continue retail sales even when the business’s wholesale distribution side picks up again.
For a directory of seafood suppliers, go to deseagrant.org/de-seafood-suppliers. Reach the Labrador Fishing Co. on Facebook.