Clams Turn Florida Fishermen Into Farmers; Production Could Lead Nation In ’98

Carole L. Jaworski

Leslie Sturmer (352) 543-5057
Chuck Adams (352) 392-1826, ext. 223

CEDAR KEY — Two years after the state net ban put thousands of them out of work, Florida fishermen not only have found new work as clam farmers, they now appear poised to lead the nation in their newly chosen field.

The biggest contributors to the almost-overnight success story: good weather, job retraining and healthy clams.

Barrie Smith, quality control manager for Nature Coast Industries, a clam wholesaler based in Cedar Key, says his 2-year-old company has grown at an exponential rate. “We sell all over the country — from the Northeast to the Midwest to the West Coast. We are currently the largest handler of farm-raised clams in the country.”

If the crop doubles this year as expected, Florida production would represent more than 10 percent of the total U.S. clam supply and about 25 percent of the nation’s aquacultured crop, said Leslie Sturmer, aquaculture agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Our big concern now is that we need to improve our marketing efforts to keep demand ahead of supply and help growers stay profitable,” Sturmer said.

Sturmer coordinated job retraining programs for unemployed fishermen during the past two years to lead the shift from fishing to farming. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a private marine research firm in Ft. Pierce, helped UF start the training program.

She said the training programs have been successful because the initiative came from unemployed fishing communities that asked the Florida Legislature for help and because fishermen are able to use their expertise to make their living on the water.

“The retraining efforts have paid off in a big way,” she said. “From zero cultured clam production in the Cedar Key region in 1991, production has skyrocketed, with upwards of 50 million clams being produced in the area in 1997. This represents a value to farmers — and a new revenue to the area — of about $7.5 million.”

About 300 producers are now growing clams within the 1,400 acres of state-owned submerged lands dedicated to aquaculture off Levy and Dixie counties.

Sturmer said the rapid success of Florida’s new clam farming industry is due to the state’s long growing season and lack of disease problems.

“Florida growers can grow a crop of littlenecks (premium-sized clams) on leased land in about a year. It takes two years for the same growth in South Carolina and three years in New Jersey or Massachusetts,” she said. “And, we have no disease here specific to clams, which is an increasing concern in New England states.”

With such phenomenal growth rates, industry focus now has shifted to sustainability over the long term. Sturmer said efforts are under way to develop the infrastructure needed to support the growing industry. These include measures to ensure adequate seed production, product quality and water quality.

To generate seed for future production, there now are more than 50 clam nurseries around the state, with 30 in the Cedar Key area alone, she said. Research at UF’s new Aquatic Food Product Laboratory is aimed at improving product quality and shelf life. UF also is training clam farmers to monitor Gulf water quality.

Chuck Adams, marine economics professor with UF, said clam farmers should be able to clear up to $30,000 a year, assuming their leased sites are stocked to maximum densities, with clam survival rates of at least 60 percent and a strong market.

“Clam aquaculture is a very good industry,” he said. “It generates a true economic impact on the local economy because most of the product is shipped out of Levy, Taylor and Dixie counties. It’s also a very clean industry with little environmental impact.”

He said clam farming is a viable alternative for fishermen because there was no clam industry on Florida’s west coast until now. Low start-up costs and opportunities for adapting relatively low-technology equipment to local conditions also make clam farming a good bet.

But Johnny Lisenby, a clam farmer near Cedar Key, is cautious.

“The industry’s going to have growing pains. The way I look at it, anytime you have success on the water, the following year you’ll have everybody and their brother wanting to get into it,” he said.

LisenBy fished the Gulf near Cedar Key for 15 years before the net ban put an end to that. He began clam farming about 18 months ago and says it’s been a bit of an adjustment.

“Many will find it’s a lot of hard work and won’t be able to handle it. But the true fisherman and clammer will hang in there and probably do all right. The hardest thing about clam farming is being able to sleep at night knowing the kind of money that is lying out there on the bottom,” he said. “There’s thousands of dollars of clam seeds lying there at the mercy of potential predators, thieves, storms or assorted disasters.”

But none, he said, has been a problem so far.

Still, LisenBy isn’t putting all his eggs in one basket. He supplements clam farming with stone crabbing.

“In this business, it’s dangerous to rely on only one species,” he said. “You never could, and I don’t think you ever will.”