Reel Time: Grant boosts SBW clam restoration effort

Reel Time: Grant boosts SBW clam restoration effort
Sarasota Bay Watch members and volunteers celebrate one of their 2018 clam releases. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

On Monday, Aug. 5, Sarasota Bay Watch received an award letter and grant agreement from the Sarasota based Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. The $106,000 grant will support SBW’s efforts to continue restoring water cleaning southern hard-shell clams to Sarasota Bay. The population of these clams, traditional residents of the bay ecosystem, are at historic lows. The restoration’s goal is to help create a self-sustaining population into the future.

The grant provides funds for SBW to acquire 1,000,000 clam seeds (4 mm size/3 months old) from the Bay Shellfish Company shellfish hatchery, hire a professional clam farmer’s services to grow the clam seed for about two and a half months before flipping them into larger grow out gear before executing approximately 25 harvests. Each batch will consist of about 150 bushels weighing about 14,000 pounds (approximately 30,000 clams/harvest).

The grant also covers the costs to transport clam harvests to Sarasota Bay from Pine Island. Expenses include truck rental, ice and gasoline. Clam growing equipment including mesh bags, cover nets, stakes and underwater equipment needed for local clam grow out is also covered as well as webmaster services, social media, community education, outreach, engagement, and the marine stewardship and conservation awareness that supports the program.

Sarasota Bay Watch also received funds as part of the grant to hire a professional clam farmer as a consultant and project leader to seek a submerged lease from the state of Florida so Sarasota Bay Watch can grow clams locally. This would significantly lower costs and improve efficiency.

Sarasota Bay Watch former President Larry Stults, who headed the grant request for SBW, clearly sees the connection between the grant funds and a healthy bay.

“Clams live up to 30 years and can filter up to 24 gallons of water a day,” says Stults. “Do the math and you can clearly see the connection. That’s over a quarter of a million gallons of water over one clam’s lifetime.”

Sarasota Bay Watch began its clam restoration in 2016 by collecting adult native southern hard-shell clams for the spawn it needed to launch the effort. Once plentiful in local waters, the clams proved difficult to locate and that’s one of the reasons the program was launched.

Sarasota Bay Watch had entered into a partnership with Bay Shellfish Company, a commercial shellfish hatchery in Terra Ceia Bay on the southern shore of Tampa Bay, in 2008. Bay Shellfish owner Curt Hemmel had developed a method to grow algae allowing him to spawn and condition bivalves, including the scallops that Sarasota Bay Watch had been seeding into Sarasota Bay for the past decade.

Sarasota Bay Watch added Southern hard-shell clams to its restoration efforts in 2016 for several reasons. Like scallops, their numbers are critically low from historical averages. Unlike scallops that live only 1.5 years, clams can thrive for up to three decades. In addition, clams are more resistant to red tide and can actually eat low levels of the harmful algae.

Sarasota Bay Watch began its clam restoration project on March 1, 2017, when it purchased 330,000 seed clams from Bay Shellfish, each about the size of a little fingernail.  Aaron Welch, a commercial Tampa Bay clam farmer, was hired to do the first round of what is called grow out in fine mesh bags anchored to seagrass beds. After 70 days they were transferred to larger mesh bags on the bay bottom and overlaid with a protective cover net.

Sarasota Bay Watch has partnered with Mote Marine Laboratory Senior Scientist and Benthic Ecology Program Manager Jim Culter to create a series of experimental plots alongside SBW’s clam release areas to test a range of variables – hand planting the clams vs. dropping them on the bottom without planting, cover netting vs. none, soft sand bottom vs. hard-packed sediment, grassy vs. sandy bottoms, etc. From these experiments, the partners hope to learn how to make future restoration cycles more successful.

With the help of the Barancik Foundation Grant, Sarasota Bay Watch can now scale up the operation and advance plans to introduce clams to Manatee County and Sarasota County waters in 2020 and beyond. Ultimately, it is Sarasota Bay Watch’s hope that the program can become self-sustaining and self-funding. In the end, Stults can clearly see the link between the clam restoration effort and a vibrant Sarasota Bay.

Check out Sarasota Bay Watch’s website for videos of the clam releases. Learn about the good works the Barancik Foundation does in Sarasota and beyond online.

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