Saving Cedar Key
A historic fishing village is now Florida’s clam capital
by Frank Stephenson
Leaving the monotonous, piney flanks of a long, two-lane highway, travelers to Cedar Key, Florida first catch the scent of sea air, then watch a marsh-and- mangrove vista unfold in natural profusion toward a hazy Gulf of Mexico horizon.
If they know anything at all about Florida’s modern history — above all its long and tortured love affair with development — visitors instinctively know that they’ve just arrived at a special place — a rare piece of Florida’s yesteryear somehow miraculously preserved in its own earthy time warp.
Perched on a point of marshy “high ground” (elevation 10 feet) in southern Levy County just an hour west of Gainesville, Cedar Key (pop. 702) relishes its specialness. Nature — together with a series of astonishingly astute political decisions over the decades — has isolated this tiny coastal hamlet in a lush, unsullied oasis that has no peer on the Gulf perimeter.
Since Herbert Hoover signed a bill in 1929 creating the 762-acre Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, another 88,000 acres of state and federal acquisitions have permanently sealed off Cedar Key to the onslaught of most of the human excesses that have ruined the heart of wild Florida. In 1867, a young adventurer who would go on to design America’s national park system, John Muir, ended a 1,000-mile trek he began in Indianapolis at Cedar Key. If he returned today, Muir could still be entranced by the “many gems of palmy islets” that helped inspire him to dedicate his life to preserving America’s wild areas.
Muir surely would also take note that the town is still living rather well off the bounty of its extraordinary natural resources. In his day, it was a global trade in locally produced lumber, turpentine and seafood that dominated Cedar Key commerce. When the last, thick stands of the area’s namesake — the eastern red cedar — fell to pencil-making factories around 1900, townsfolk were obliged to depend even more heavily on the sea for their livelihoods, sensing it was the one sure thing they could count on.
And so it remains today, more than a century on. What has changed — and that’s just about everything tied to the town’s now-famous seafood industry — is the seafood itself.
Instead of mullet, oysters and crabs, for the past 15 years the phrase “Cedar Key seafood” largely has come to mean essentially one thing — clams. Actually, clams and more clams. Thanks to an extraordinary turn of events, the good people of Cedar Key can — and frequently do — thank the lowly clam for saving their marine heritage, and maybe even their town itself.
But a visitor can get a rise out of a Cedar Key clam farmer by calling his catch “lowly.” The tasty bivalve may live at the bottom of nature’s food web, but that’s about the only low point in the remarkable story of Florida clam farming. Today the enterprise is pegged by state economists as having a total annual economic impact of roughly $53 million, a figure that nearly doubles that of Florida’s other, far older and more famous shellfish business, oystering — a wild harvest largely centered in Franklin County in the Panhandle.
After Florida voters approved a ban on gill nets in 1994, Cedar Key — where net-caught fish had fired the economy for generations — stared financial and cultural catastrophe in the face. But in just five short but busy years, the town was able to claim supremacy among the nation’s producers of farm-raised clams. This improbable success story is one that combines the spirit of a committed, never-say-die community unafraid of hard work with that of Florida politics done right and the know-how of the 48-year-old University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
“The net ban was devastating to this community, but the problems began before that. It was the closure of the oyster beds in 1990 that was the catalyst for what you see here today.”
With some effort, Leslie Sturmer’s voice carries above the thrum of a 90-horsepower Yamaha outboard pushing an 18-foot, flat-bottomed skiff through a foot-and-a-half chop. At the helm, she eases up the throttle and widens her stance for the short, bumpy ride out to the shores of Dog Island, one of the 20-odd uninhabited barrier islands that make up the Cedar Key archipelago. On this clear, blustery morning in late December, Sturmer is heading into the heart of “Clamelot,” a place she knows well.
The riff off the Arthurian legend has been a favorite nickname for Cedar Key since 1998, when the town made headlines for growing more clams than any other place in the country after being in the business only five years. Sturmer was into just her third year then as the state’s only shellfish extension agent, working for IFAS and on permanent assignment in Cedar Key. She had eagerly taken the job as soon as it was created in 1995. Her sole mission: do whatever it took to help Cedar Key’s young clam-farming operation get up and running.
“I’d been in aquaculture all my life, been in some successes and some doozy failures,” she says. “But I’d never been in a place where it was truly part of the community.”
Armed with a master’s in marine aquaculture from Auburn, Sturmer had previously worked in Texas in a large, successful redfish hatchery, then in Apalachicola on a farm-raised oyster project that eventually failed. She first saw Cedar Key in 1991 when, working for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, she signed on to help Cedar Key fishermen deal with the sudden death of their 150-year-old oyster industry.
In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shut down the area’s commercial oystering operation in the Suwannee Sound, the vast estuary that serves as Cedar Key’s northern marine perimeter. High and persistent levels of sewage-borne bacteria escaping from too many septic tanks triggered the federal action. More than a hundred workers were out of a job overnight. Sturmer was sent in to help retrain workers in a federally funded retraining effort in aquaculture named “Project Ocean.”
“The project included both oysters and clams,” she recalled. “The fact that we added clams proved to be our salvation.”
Sturmer is heading toward a tree studded shoreline where hundreds of small-bore PVC pipes protrude from shallow water. She’s just entered one of Cedar Key’s five duly authorized high-density clam lease areas. Beneath only four feet or less of muddy water lay hundreds of heavy-duty, polyester mesh bags loaded with clams in various stages of development. Farmers pin the bags to the bottom in neat rows that can extend a hundred yards or more. Sediment covers the bags soon after they’re planted, and barring predators, drops in salinity, lethal water temperatures — always a summer threat — or a catastrophic storm, pea-sized baby clams will reach harvestable size in a year or so.
Sturmer throttles back and maneuvers her boat parallel to one of the rows outlined by the barnacle-encrusted pipes. Her helper, Reggie Markham, drops an anchor off the bow and Sturmer kills the engine.
With Markham in a full-body wetsuit and Sturmer in waders, the two ease over the gunnels and steady themselves in chest-high, chocolatecolored water. Markham slips on a dive mask and plunges face-first into the December-cold water, quickly emerging with the end of a muddy clam bag in his grasp. Sturmer helps him lift it into the boat.
“Whoa, these are real beauties,” she exclaims back aboard as Markham snips open the bag and pours its contents into a large basket. Dozens of shimmering, glossy shells pile up, looking for all the world as if a manicurist had just bathed them in nail polish. And yet until minutes before, the bivalves had been buried in muddy sand for 12 months.
“These are sunray venus clams,” Sturmer says. “This is a native Florida clam that we’re trying to get established as another component of clam aquaculture here. They’ve got tremendous potential.”
Getting another species of clam geared up for full-scale farming just makes good marketing sense, Sturmer explains. Cedar Key’s spectacular rise as a clam-farming capital has come at the risk of putting all its eggs in one biological basket, in a sense.
Currently, farmers in Cedar Key and the 11 counties on both coasts where clam farming is occurring grow only the hard-shell clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). Known as the northern quahog, the clams also get marketed as midneck, littlenecks and topnecks — names all based on size. Should something threaten the species without a backup in the pipeline, the young industry could face disaster.
“This is a big part of what we hope to do here, to diversify the industry to help it grow and sustain itself,” Sturmer says. “I think we’ve made good progress, but we still have lots to do.”
In her office at the George Kirkpatrick Marine Laboratory overlooking a stretch of marsh that becomes the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge — one of the area’s eight formalized conservation districts — Sturmer reflects on her years in Cedar Key. The building she shares with her three-person team honors the late state senator from Gainesville who pushed for funding in the early 1990s aimed at saving Cedar Key’s economy through aquaculture. In the eyes of most locals, Kirkpatrick was a hero.
“He had a special place in his heart for these coastal fishermen,” Sturmer says. “He and (former state representative) Allen Boyd went to bat for the community here and got the funding for Project Ocean. The senator also wound up bringing IFAS into clam farming.”
When that retraining effort ended in 1993, few sensed that it would essentially be a demonstration project for an even bigger effort. “Project Wave” was launched in 1995 to cope with the cataclysmic outfall of the net ban. To many, the law was seen as the proverbial nail in the coffin for Cedar Key’s fishing heritage. Unlike its predecessor, Project Wave was designed exclusively for displaced net fishermen and focused entirely on growing clams. Despite their plight, area fishermen initially greeted the effort with little enthusiasm.
“There was a lot of skepticism, you bet, but what choice did they have?” Sturmer says. “Their oyster reefs were still shut down, and now they couldn’t catch mullet anymore. If they wanted to stay on the water, they had no choice but to give clam farming a try.”
Sturmer’s first years on the job were a blur of meetings with local, federal, state and university officials, building teams and finding expertise wherever she could in a variety of essential fields. She dealt with bureaucrats in at least three state agencies, all with overlapping or duplicative missions, to finally hammer out a workable plan to issue leases for state-owned submerged land, the linchpin of the entire effort.
She also organized scores of training workshops, wrote reams of grants seeking money and help and became the “go-to” person for solving problems. Sturmer quickly became the face of Cedar Key’s bold venture into a whole new way of life — clam farming, a phrase typically heard in the same breath with “the New England coast.”
But the match that lit the fuse proved to be a nifty bit of marine biology that probably wouldn’t be permitted in today’s world. With help from her colleagues at Harbor Branch — a leader in marine aquaculture in Florida — Sturmer brought Mercenaria mercenaria to Cedar Key from Florida’s east coast, where the clam was native. Cedar Key was home to Mercenaria’s close relative, Mercenaria campechianus, a fine-eating clam but nonetheless one that research had shown couldn’t match the shelf-life of its popular East Coast cousin.
“Even though it’s the same state, it’s two different coasts, and regs today possibly would prohibit what we did,” Sturmer says. “Now, with the agencies’ blessings, these two species are being evaluated in breeding efforts to improve productivity while maintaining product quality.”
And what a colossal waste of a resource that would have been. Cedar Key sits at the ecological epicenter of ideal clam-growing country. If nature ever created the place for happy clams, Cedar Key and its environs is it.
Topping the reasons is the abundance of clean saltwater. Fate has favored the area as far as major polluting industries — Cedar Key has never had any. Modern wastewater treatment in Levy and Dixie counties has solved the septic tank problem — the last one was shut down in 2001 and commercial oystering has reopened.
Another major advantage that Cedar Key has over most other clam-growing centers is that its shallow bays open directly to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re not inside anything here like other places,” Sturmer says. “We’re not locked up in a harbor or sound. We face the Gulf head on, and our water gets constantly refreshed.”
The sea bottom also is perfect for the purpose. Hard-shell clams love muddy seafloors, while other species tend to prefer living in more sand and less mud. Cedar Key is surrounded by a rich mix of marine sediment that offers plenty of ideal growing ground for just about any edible clam species, Sturmer says.
But even with such a bountiful, natural table set for clam growing, Cedar Key’s meteoric rise as a top clam producer would never have been possible without its subtropical climate. Brief, generally mild winters have no lingering effect on Cedar Key’s predominantly warm seawater, a condition that fuels a steady growth of phytoplankton — clams’ favorite food. Such a luxury is out of reach for huge clamming operations in New England and the Pacific Northwest.
“While those places may be able to plant (baby clams) only a few times a year, and then wait two to three years for them to grow to market size, we can plant year-round and grow them out in as little as 12 to 15 months,” Sturmer says.
The bivalves don’t need any pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics or manmade fertilizers of any kind, and they benefit their environments in other ways wherever they live. They grow their calcium carbonate-based shells by using atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in the water they live in, thereby trapping a notorious greenhouse gas. And when they’re harvested, loads of potentially pollutioncausing nitrogen trapped in their flesh get removed from estuaries.
But clams’ biggest benefit to the environment is their ability to clean the water in which they live. Filter feeders, they constantly strain water, clearing away suspended particles that can block sunlight from reaching seagrasses. Such vegetation is vitally important in the lives of myriad sea creatures, including baby grouper, one of the Gulf’s most important fish. Research has shown that a two-acre Cedar Key clam farm can filter upwards of 9 million gallons of water a day, Sturmer says.
A big part of Sturmer’s job is to educate seafood companies, consumers and the public in general about the “green” aspects of clam aquaculture.
“This is about as environmentally friendly and as economically feasible as any farming operation gets.”
A Mature Industry
Overnight, a cold front has turned the Cedar Key waterfront into a windswept panorama of white caps and pummeled vegetation with a temperature of 38 degrees and a wind chill near freezing.
It’s 10 a.m. and a wet crew of clammers is hurriedly off-loading a full boat at Southern Cross Seafarms, one of the town’s leading clam wholesalers. The men have been on — and in — the icy water since first light.
Holiday season has Southern’s workforce in all-hands-on-deck mode. Sturmer watches as the last of the contents of some 30 muddy bags, each holding upwards of 1,200 clams, gets spilled into plastic bins.
From there, the bins get quickly emptied into tumbling cages mounted on the company’s dock just a few steps away. As the clams fall against themselves, jets of high-pressure water knock off mud and debris. They emerge looking like inch-thick, gold-and-brown gemstones.
Sturmer follows a bin of cleaned clams being rolled into the company’s refrigerated processing house. Five workers hover over a noisy, vibrating machine that is spitting out clams in three streams, sorted by size. Color-coded mesh bags of 100-count each get tied, stacked and moved to a cooler.
“These will soon be on the road to an airport,” Sturmer says, pointing to the stacks. “They’ll be on a dinner plate or in a restaurant by Christmas Day.”
Sturmer is bearing witness to a mature industry whose milestones she’s been a midwife to for nearly two decades. She has watched as a traditional net-fishing community gradually “got it” about aquaculture, a notion foreign to the locals. She has seen determined, hardworking people master all the tricks of building and running their own hatcheries, raising the “seeds” in nurseries, planting and harvesting them correctly, becoming savvy to the often cruel whims of the marketplace — in short doing many of the same things any upland farmer would do to stay in business.
She’s also watched the industry get tested by forces of nature, the marketplace and, most recently, human folly. The BP oil disaster in 2010 could have snuffed out Cedar Key’s bright aquaculture candle overnight. But the town dodged that bullet and still, amazingly enough, holds its luck against big storms. Cedar Key hasn’t had a direct hit from a hurricane since an 1896 storm all but obliterated the town. That storm dashed Cedar Key’s dreams of becoming the bustling port that Tampa eventually became, a twist of fate that nonetheless spared its environment for what it enjoys today — a resurging vitality based on exquisitely unsoiled natural resources, something so many other Florida towns lost long ago.
“People here don’t consider themselves aquaculturists — they’re clammers,” Sturmer says. “We’re into our second generation now of clam-farm families, with a third starting to come on. It’s a way of life now, and if we keep doing the right things, I think it’s here to stay.”