Clams can help fight red tide. Thousands have just been released off Bradenton Beach

In the wake of a devastating red tide outbreak along Florida’s west coast, a lot of attention was paid to the filtering benefits of oysters and clams, which essentially eat the organism responsible for red tide, Karenia brevis.

Oyster and clam restoration projects began prior to the red tide outbreak, but programs stepped up the pace as everyone looked for any possible solutions to thwart red tide, if only in smaller waterways that feed the Gulf of Mexico.

More than 200,000 live clams were purchased by the Bradenton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, and the first 30,000 or so were released into Sarasota Bay off the Bridge Street Pier in Bradenton Beach on Saturday.

Oysters and clams can filter dozens of gallons a water a day, but they have distinct differences.

Oysters tend to stay in one location throughout their lives, which can be up to 30 years while clams — living up to 35 years — are largely mobile.

Saturday’s release into the bay was in part to help with the red tide mitigation efforts, but Ed Chiles — a member of the CRA and restaurant owner — said there is another important point that needed to be raised: While the shellfish are beneficial in eating red tide, they become inedible for a period of time.

Local shellfish farmers were hit hard by the most recent red tide event, ironically because of the benefits of clams. With justifiable concerns about red tide toxicity levels in the shellfish, many of the farmers were not able to harvest their product. Chiles is pushing for legislative action that would allow shellfish farmers to purchase state insurance to cover future losses.

Aquaculture — or farmed seafood — is vital for supporting the nation’s seafood production. The industry also provides year-round jobs, rebuilds protected species and habitats and enhances coastal resilience.

Globally, aquaculture supplies more than 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption. And yet, the U.S. is only producing about 1 percent through aquaculture and imports 90 percent of its seafood from foreign countries, according to The Gulf Shellfish Institute. Chiles said it represents the nation’s second highest trade deficit.

“Commercial production of farmed shellfish is an expanding industry in Florida and has the potential to reduce the seafood trade deficit,” states a post from the University of Florida’s Angela Collins of the UF IFAS Extension in Manatee County.

Oysters and clams also enhance the growth of seagrass coverage for coastal resilience. Chiles said it’s time Manatee County takes the lead.

“I’m pretty excited about this project,” Chiles said. “We’ve been working hard on building aquaculture in Manatee County, which is the only place where we have three national estuaries. Clams grow twice as fast in warmer water and we are the perfect place, but our clam farmers don’t have a safety net, no insurance program.”

Though clams live a long time, when the farms are closed due to red tide, they grow beyond the size typical of what you find on a restaurant plate. Bigger clams end up in dishes like chowder but the profit levels drop significantly.

“We are showing that this a model program that I hope will be adopted by the state,” Chiles said. “We have to think differently here and ought to be supporting and incentivizing these clam farmers. Clams are perfect. Their shell is made of carbon, which cleans the water.”

The clams released on Saturday were purposely the larger clams.

“Little clams require a lot,” Chiles said. “They are very predator sensitive. Everything wants to eat it, so by starting this project with larger clams we realized we also were propping up those clam farmers. The big, heavy, thick clam is virtually predator proof and will live another 33 years in our waters, cleaning it and spawning millions of larva over those years. So, that’s why we are buying those clams instead of smaller clams.”

Saturday was the first of six releases that will bring the total to more than 200,000.

“We will have done something to enhance and promote this community that Manatee County should be known for, while addressing red tide issues and promoting clean water,” Chiles said.

Chiles said legislators have been responsive to his proposal for shellfish farm insurance, and is hopeful some legislation will be introduced soon. He said it’s not the first time he’s tried it, but it seems like the most recent red tide is sparking a more intense response.

“Even after the 1995 and 96 experience of red tide, we’ve never seen money for this and now there is a lot of money, which is nice,” Chiles said. “But we want to make sure it’s not only about what’s coming out of Lake Okeechobee, but also what’s going into Lake Okeechobee, what we are putting on our lawns and crops.

“Red tide is naturally occurring and yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that forever, but when you pour gasoline on the fire, you are bringing us to a tipping point,” he said. “There needs to be an emphasis placed on shoreline restoration and oyster and clam restoration. The program isn’t just for food, but for the environment and there is an opportunity here to bring aquaculture in Manatee County where we can and should be the model for Florida and the country.”

Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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