Reel Time: Sarasota Bay Watch clams survive red tide

reel time Clam Drop
Sarasota Bay Watch board members and volunteers prepare to launch their 5th clam restoration from the Reef Innovations barge. The event was staged at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Sarasota Bay Watch (SBW) is excited that the clams they introduced into Sarasota Bay this past summer survived the recent red tide outbreak, an outbreak that included the highest concentrations of Karenia brevis ever recorded.

SBW originally focused its shellfish restoration efforts on scallops. Since it was formed in 2007, SBW has released over 21 million scallop larvae, and will continue its scallop restoration program.

Like bay scallops, southern hard clams (aka quahogs) were once abundant in our bays and waterways. Due to the same factors that affected scallops – overharvest, water pollution, sewage, dredge and fill and stormwater runoff – clams no longer thrive in local waters.

The decision to add clams to the restoration effort came about because of their ability to withstand red tide and their extended life cycle. Clams inhabit shallow flats and bays from Canada to Florida. They range in size from one to four inches wide and vary in color from gray to white. Depending on their size they are also known as cherrystone or littlenecks.

Unlike bay scallops, which have a maximum lifespan of 1.5 years and are sensitive to red tide, the southern hard clam lives up to 30 years and actually eats red tide, mitigating the harmful effects of the toxin.  An adult can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. In the filtering process, they also absorb assorted viruses, toxins and bacteria in the polluted water. Low levels of pollutants do not harm clams, and they are able to clean themselves when the pollutants are removed.

Scallops also are a favorite food for many marine animals and suffer from predation throughout their short life cycle. Adult clams feature a thick protective shell that is virtually predator-free (except for human harvesting).

These facts convinced SBW to mobilize its experience and team of enthusiastic volunteers to clam restoration as well.  The program is now in full swing with plans to begin a fresh effort in 2019.  START (Solutions to Avoid Red Tide) generously provided seed funding to create a matching challenge, while community funding rose to the task as well.  These donations, along with a gift from the Disney Conservation Fund, provided the springboard to kick-start this effort.

This past Saturday, SBW did its fifth release in Sarasota Bay and provided clams to Mote scientist Jim Culter, who is documenting and monitoring the effort.  The organization continues to gain experience and was assisted by Eagle Gulf Coast Distributors, which provided a refrigerated truck to transport the clams from Pine Island where they are being grown out. SBW partner, Larry Beggs, of Reef Innovations, once again provided his barge to assist in the transportation and distribution of the clams to their new home in Sarasota Bay. The effort was launched from the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, a longtime conservation partner.

SBW is excited by the prospect of clams improving our bays and increasing water clarity, which will in turn support healthier and more abundant sea grass. In addition, these adult clams will naturally reproduce. This will increase their stocks in our bays and waterways.

Sarasota Bay Watch is a grass-roots, non-profit, citizen-based organization dedicated to preserving and restoring Sarasota Bay’s ecosystem through education and citizen participation. You can become an active participant by volunteering in Sarasota Bay Watch’s on-going effort to protect and restore this valuable natural resource. Visit their site to learn more.

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