Clams are back in Tampa Bay, and that’s good news. But not just clams – other shellfish are also flourishing, both naturally and through aquaculture. It’s all due to recent cleanup efforts restoring the bay.
Ed Chiles can’t say enough good things about clams. The long-time Anna Mara Island resident and restaurateur is a major promoter of shellfish aquaculture, not only for food, but also for their importance in the watery ecosystem surrounding us.
“Clams are a great asset, and we live in one of the best places to farm them,” said Chiles, a fifth-generation Floridian and vice-president of the Gulf Shellfish Institute (GSI), a nonprofit promoting shellfish aquaculture.
“Ninety percent of local seafood is imported,” Chiles “We have the water quality, the temperature and the nutrients. Clams are hardy filter feeders, long-lived, and they improve seagrass beds…the perfect thing for habitat restoration.”
Local Growers Take the Lead
Chiles is not alone in his praise of shellfish aquaculture. Brian Rosegger owns Lost Coast Oyster Company, a new oyster farm in Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, where he leases submerged land from the state to raise oysters.
Rosegger, who has a science background, worked on the BP Horizon spill in 2010. He saw the damage done to the fisheries and it piqued his interest in aquaculture.
“When the Gulf wild [shellfish] harvest collapsed, I witnessed a shift to farming off the bottom,” he said, referring to the disaster-fueled boom in aquaculture. “I saw it at Cedar Key and in the Panhandle.”
He decided to give oyster farming a try, and now he takes the Skyway from his home in St. Petersburg, to Terra Ceia daily to check his oysters.
“We started [the farm] about a year ago,” said Rosegger, who handles the oysters, while his wife, Lindsay, does the marketing. “We buy seed oysters [spat] from a hatchery and raise them in bags…the tiny, fingernail-sized baby oysters are stocked at the farm in floating bags, creating an ideal environment.”
Rosegger added, “We grew about 100,000 oysters to market size in a year,” noting that he hopes to increase his yield as business grows.
“It’s intensive, not extensive,” he said about his oysters. “The bags keep the shellfish together, prevent predators, and allow excrement to fertilize nearby seagrass.”
Currently the bay hosts a couple of clam operations as well as Roseggers oyster farm.
The Heyday of Shellfish
Shellfish have been part of Florida’s culinary history for millennia, a staple of the indigenous natives dwelling here before the 16th century European invasion. The thousands of shell middens they left bear testament to shellfish abundance; some mounds towered 40 feet or more before they were carelessly hauled away for road beds by Florida’s pioneers.
“Ever hear of the Oyster River?” Chiles asked. “It’s what old-timers a century ago called the Manatee River because oysters were so thick you couldn’t navigate so they had to dredge it out.”
Clams Help Habitat Restoration
“Clams are filter feeders,” said Bill Arnold, speaking at a recent GFI webinar. ”They’re bivalves; they clean the water and sequester carbon, but we must improve conditions to take advantage of their eco-services.”
Seagrass thrives near clam beds because the bivalves filter the water, allowing sunlight, Arnold explained. Seagrass needs light to make chlorophyll, so everything is symbiotic. No seagrass, no clams.
Though clams, scallops, mussels and oysters were once abundant in Tampa Bay and its surrounding estuaries, decades of unrestricted dredge and fill projects, plus urban pollution destroyed the natural bounty.
The Future of Shellfish Aquaculture
With all these great attributes to shellfish farming, why isn’t there more of it in the area?
Ed Chiles says it’s because there’s no safety net – no crop insurance if there’s a bad season, or a natural disaster. In 2018, the red tide that wouldn’t leave shut down a couple of farms around Charlotte Harbor, and they’ve never reopened.
Chiles says he wants to see mitigation credits for shellfish aquaculture, where growers earn credits for carbon sequestration and other environmental benefits.
“If I could wave my magic wand, I would certify clam farmers to get mitigation credits,” said Chiles.
To find out if different water bodies are open to wild harvest, check here.