How do you see your seafood? Celebrating Manatee County’s ‘fresh catch’ during Farm City Week

Florida is the fishing capital of the world, and it is no secret that people come here for our beautiful beaches, our amazing sunsets, and our delicious seafood.

But did you know that Florida fishermen provide over 84% of the nation’s supply of grouper, mullet, stone crab, and pink shrimp? Did you know that the Tampa Bay area consistently leads the state in commercial seafood landings? Did you know that Manatee County is home to multiple bivalve shellfish farms and one of the largest shellfish hatcheries in the southeast?

Manatee County is celebrating Farm City Week Nov. 9-22. The theme this year is “Fresh Catch,” spotlighting the past, present and future of Manatee County’s seafood industry and working waterfronts. Farm City Week celebrates the importance and immense value of agriculture (thank a farmer if you ate today!), so it makes perfect sense to recognize our local seafood industry and their incredible contribution to Florida agriculture.

Grouper, snapper, mackerel, pompano, hogfish, and the mighty mullet are just a few of the species landed within local waters and shipped across the US. If your palate is primed for seafood of the invertebrate variety, we have shrimp, stone crab, blue crab, oysters and clams. Manatee County shares its watershed with three nationally accredited estuaries (Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor) so we are in an ecologically unique place that is capable of supporting these extensive fisheries. Healthy estuaries play a critical role in sustaining many of these economically and environmentally important species.

Manatee County’s seafood producers have continued to provide high quality products even in the face of challenges presented by red tide, pollution, development, regulation, and foreign competition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the village of Cortez, one of the last true working waterfronts in the state. This small but mighty fishing village was built on mullet, but has diversified over the years and remains a top producer of Florida seafood. You can check it out for yourself at the 38th annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, which will take place Feb. 15-16. 2020. Mark your calendars to visit this historic village and become acquainted with your local seafood industry. All proceeds support the FISH Preserve, a 95-acre parcel of land at the east end of the village that represents the last stretch of undeveloped waterfront property left on Sarasota Bay.

If you are eating wild caught Florida seafood, there is a very strong chance that it crossed the docks of Cortez. Settled by fishing families from North Carolina in the 1800s, Cortez has never stopped fishing. The circumstances (and the view from their docks) have changed through time, but this hard working community continues to adapt and stay admirably afloat through changing tides.

But wild fisheries are not our only source of local seafood. Commercial production of farmed bivalve shellfish (e.g., clams and oysters) is an expanding industry in Florida and has the potential to reduce the seafood trade deficit, create new jobs and revitalize working waterfronts. Tampa Bay is home to multiple shellfish aquaculture leases and a productive shellfish hatchery.

The shellfish aquaculture industry also provides some serious ecosystem perks. By their simple acts of eating and growing, filter-feeding bivalves remove nutrients (like nitrogen), sequester atmospheric carbon and increase water clarity. Shellfish farms have been linked to improved water conditions and increases in seagrass coverage in some areas. So Florida farm-raised clams and oysters are not only a delicious and sustainable source of seafood, they are also really good neighbors and one of the greenest farms around!

Even with all of these options, the U.S. currently imports over 90% of our seafood, and over half of these imports are aquaculture products. Informed and mindful consumers are critical to the success of our domestic seafood industry – which, by the way, is one of the safest and most sustainable in the world. Florida fishermen and shellfish farmers are required to follow strict federal and state regulations when harvesting seafood, so you can be assured that the local products you buy are safe and managed in a sustainable way.

Know where your seafood comes from and ask for local products when you can. Farm-City Week encourages you to celebrate the contribution of commercial seafood producers and recognize how important it is to protect the environment that supports our fisheries. Seafood is a huge a part of Manatee County’s past – let’s do all we can to make sure it is a huge part of our future.

Angela Collins is an extension agent for the University of Florida in Manatee, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties.