Sarasota Bay Watch restoring clams

Sarasota Bay Watch conducted its fourth large-scale planting of Southern hard-shell clams Saturday, June 16. Over 30,000 clams were transported from Pine Island Sound and loaded onto a barge provided by volunteer Larry Beggs of Reef Innovations. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Mike Sole and his wife, Jeannie, attended the event to learn about the innovative approach that aims to replenish depleted local stocks while helping to clean the waters of Sarasota Bay.

Adult native clams were collected locally to obtain spawn for the restoration effort. Once plentiful in local waters, the clams proved difficult to locate. Sarasota Bay Watch has a partnership with a professional shellfish hatchery in Terra Ceia Bay on the southern shore of Tampa Bay. Bay Shellfish Company conditioned and spawned the native adult clams in late 2016.

On March 1, 2017, Sarasota Bay Watch purchased, at cost, 330,000 seed clams, each about the size of a little fingernail. A commercial clam farmer was hired to do the first round of what is called grow out in fine mesh bags anchored to the bay bottom. The clam farmer used seagrass beds on submerged land leased from the state of Florida in Charlotte Harbor. This clam farmer grew the seed clams for 70 days in fine mesh bags until they were transferred to larger mesh bags, dispersed on the bottom and overlaid with a protective cover net.

Reel Time clam restoration
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Mike Sole pitches in to load clams on the deployment barge while talking to clam farming partner Dr. Aaron Welch. – John Ryan | Submitted

In May 2017, the seed clams were transferred to another clam farmer who maintains a lease in Pine Island Sound. There they grew for 12 months until they reached what is known as top neck size, approximately 2.5 inches or larger. The farmer, Carter Davis, is conducting a series of seven harvests over the summer, with a delivery of each harvest to Sarasota Bay Watch at his dock on Pine Island. Each harvest is about 3,000 pounds of clams totaling around 32,000 clams. The clams come out of the water at about 9 a.m., get transferred to a SBW rental truck at 10 a.m., and are driven to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron where they arrive at noon. Then they get transferred to a Reef Innovations work barge. Volunteers have them back in the water in Sarasota Bay by noon.

The whole program took Sarasota Bay Watch and scientific partner Mote Marine Laboratory approximately 18 months to complete and cost $20,000. Mote Marine Senior Scientist and Benthic Ecology Program Manager Jim Culter has created a series of experimental plots alongside SBW’s clam release areas to test a range of variables including hand planting of the clams versus dropping them on the bottom without planting, cover netting versus none, soft sand bottom versus hard packed sediment, and grassy versus sandy bottoms. From these experiments, the partners hope to learn how to make future restoration cycles more successful.

Sarasota Bay Watch Co-President Larry Stults hopes to scale up the operation in the future and may even grow more than they need, selling the excess in a profit-sharing arrangement with clam farmers. Ultimately, it is Sarasota Bay Watch’s hope that the program can become self-funding.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s restoration, a sustainable seafood lunch was held at the Mar Vista Dockside restaurant on Longboat Key. Attendees included FWC Commissioner Mike Sole and his wife, Jeannie; Dr. Aaron Welch, clam farmer and adjunct professor at the University of Miami; Dr. Bruce Barber, professor at Eckerd College and executive director of the Gulf Shellfish Institute; John Ryan, a SBW founder and Sarasota County natural resources expert; Dr. Larry Stults, co-president of Sarasota Bay Watch, board member of Gulf Shellfish Institute, Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida and START; Ed Chiles, Mar Vista owner and board member of Gulf Shellfish and START; and Courtland Hunt, SBW volunteer and videographer.

Chef Erik Walker prepared a delicious medley of local seafood including locally grown hard shell clams, mullet with an olive and white grape tapenade, frog legs and stuffed and fried squash blossoms. The meal was topped off with an organic blueberry cheesecake.

During the lunch, there was a wide-ranging discussion of restoration efforts, clam farming, sustainability and other conservation issues. WWSB Channel 40 in Sarasota aired coverage of the restoration before and after the event on the evening news.

Sarasota Bay Watch is planning three more clam plantings over the summer. To volunteer or donate to the cause, go to their website.

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