by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Cedar Key may not be one of Florida’s more famous Keys; the Beach Boys or Jimmy Buffet ever sang its praise. Cedar Key, however, is famous among Gulf seafood lovers for its hard shell clams harvested in record numbers and shipped to restaurants around the country.
Located almost center point between Tampa and Pensacola, the tiny peninsula sits surrounded by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico fed by the Suwannee River.
“Cedar Key sticks out in the Gulf of Mexico giving it a nice tidal range of two high tides and two low tides a day,” said Leslie Sturmer, a Molluscan shellfish specialist for Florida Sea Grant. “This tidal range is very conducive to growing shellfish, especially clams. The growing beds are out in the shallow waters of the Gulf, not within a lagoon, harbor or sound.”
According to Strumer, “Everything depends on good water quality when it comes to growing clams, and this tiny Florida community has some of the cleanest water in the country.”
A Modern Day Fairytale
Cedar Key is a modern-day fairytale; it has climbed high after hitting rock bottom.
A center for gill net fishermen and oystermen, the community suffered as gill net fishing was outlawed with federal legislation during the early 1990’s and the oyster fishery closed due to lack of production.
A transition to clam aquaculture as an alternative opportunity for local fisherman was facilitated through a federally funded job-retraining program passed during that same time period. In a four county area, more than 350 gillnet fisherman from Gulf were introduced to clam aquaculture.
Today many of these fishermen, along with their families are operating productive clam farms.
“Governor Bob Martinez and Florida Senator George Kirkpatrick partnered to get the federal funding under the Job Training Partnership Act for affected seafood workers to train in shellfish aquaculture,” explained Sturmer. “Fisherman had the choice of entering the program or going to Gainesville to flip hamburgers, they chose to stay.”
According to Sturmer, the first aquaculture clams in the area were planted in 1991; previously there was no aquaculture in the area. “We were very successful because the area is a very good growing area and fishermen were able to learn quickly and adapt their skills, boats and gear to farming clams,” she said.
Florida Highway 24, the only road leading onto Cedar Key, is surrounded by water on each side. Lining the highway are clam nets set out to dry in the hot Florida sun by both mom-and-pop, as well as large clam growers, in which between 150 – 200 million clams are harvested each year.
The tiny peninsula was once was an important industrial port in the late 1800’s, shipping cotton, lumber, sponges, fish and oysters to markets along the eastern seaboard, Canada and Europe. It is the now largest clam producer in the Gulf, with eleven other clam-growing areas located on both sides of the state. The industry originated in the Indian River on the Atlantic side of Florida, but Gulf production has dwarfed the eastern coast.
“You can’t beat Cedar Key for how many clams come out of this community,” said Sturmer who has been in the area since 1971. “We are using a version of the northern hard clam that is not native to Florida. It is the ‘bread and butter’ commodity clam, however we don’t say we grow northern clams we just say we grow hard clams.”
The Florida growing techniques are modified versions of those used by northeastern growers. They have been modified to the subtopic, sub tidal conditions existing in the Sunshine State. Warmer waters result is faster growth for the clams. Clam seed can be planted year round resulting in year round harvest, unlike in the northeast.
Nearly 88,000 acres surrounding Cedar Key are held in public trust. Bivalve growers lease coastal submerged lands leased from the state for a 10-year period that is renewable and transferrable.
The clam industry is basically a three-phase operation; small seed hatchery production, large seed growth in land and field nurseries, and the marketable product.
Modified gillnet fishing boats place soft bags made of polyester and mesh filled with clam seed into the soil substrate that provide protection from predators. They allow for sustaining water flow, while providing oxygen and natural food needed for the baby clams to grow.
According to Sandra Shumway, Ph.D. of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut, shellfish aquaculture offers important opportunities for economic and social cohesion in coast areas that preserves the ambience of seaside communities.
“A single clam can clear more than10 gallons of water per day,” Sturmer said. “They improve special abundance and diversity and provide habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and other organisms.”
More than 75% of the community’s harvest is sold outside of the region by the more than 20 area wholesalers, bringing new dollars into the local economy. Clams are sold live, or as shell stock.
There are hundreds of species of bivalves that would make good candidates for aquaculture, however Sturmer has come up with one native Florida species destined to become the first “high end” clam – the Sunray Venus Clam, Macrocallista Mimbosa, a new aquaculture Mollusca shellfish species.
“In the 1960’s the Sunray Venus clam supported a small commercial fishery up in the Florida panhandle,” she explained about the new designer clam. “What they were harvesting was a four to seven inch shell length clam that was shipped to processing plants in Apalachicola to be shucked and sold to the clam strip market. The fishery was eventually depleted, but we knew the history of the fast growing native clam that had consumer appeal so we decided to give it a shot.”
In 2006, with initial funding from Florida Sea Grant, she started an evaluation process to produce the Sunray Venus using aquaculture. After a couple of years of research, the new clam is now approximately two inches in length. Growers are working with this clam, and producing them in good numbers in both Cedar Key and the Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side.
“We were looking for a bivalve that would support the upper end, higher value product served in high-end, white table cloth restaurants,” she said about the new clam. “Sunray Venus is the common name for this native Florida Clam, we couldn’t make up a better.”
According to the Florida bi-valve specialist, the new specialty clam is selling at a premium and the growers are positioned to cater to the restaurants frequented in the winter months by tourists from around the world.
“We have done consumer studies on the Sunray Venus clams, and have taken them to chefs and displayed them at the Boston Seafood Show,” said Stumer about the new clam. “Everyone loves them. We wanted to develop a distinctive clam that differs radically from our hard clam. We wanted a clam whose taste and appearance was completely different from what we are now producing.”
Turning fishermen into aquaculture farmers has been a success for the small Gulf community of Cedar Key, as well as for the state of Florida. The state now closely trails Virginia as the top producer of clams in the U.S.
“Clams have the luxury of not having to compete with imports,” said the Florida clam specialist. “We are finally beyond the recession, we are finally beyond the perception that Gulf of Mexico seafood is considered tainted and we have finally seen our prices go back to what we had ten years ago. As a community we have worked hard to get to where we are today, and we will continue to go forward in the future.”