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Florida's clam to fame: Florida is bursting at the seams with farm-raised clams, a delight for diners, conservationists and fishermen alike.

Whenever I fish the north jetty at Sebastian Inlet in Brevard County, my first order of business is to scout the pier to see what others have left behind, a kind of archeological expedition for bait-based information. The dried bodies of white bait, shrimp and crabs offer clues as to what anglers have been working. More often than not, broken clam shells are as prevalent as any other telltale sign of bait preference--something I took notice of a long time ago.

All along Brevard shores, inshore anglers, jetty anglers and surfcasters have embraced the clam as an efficient bait. Redfish, whiting, flounder, pompano, and even the occasional bluefish or Spanish mackerel find it hard to resist the delectable meat of the bivalve. But, move north, south, or west of Brevard and the clam loses a good deal of its popularity as bait. I've always been curious as to what keeps the clam so regionally constrained in Florida. Why hasn't the clam achieved inshore celebrity-bait stature, like shrimp?

There are two species of hard clam in Florida: the northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the southern quahog (Mercenaria campechiensis). Unlike many of our Yankee brethren, who can be particular about their chowders and who are likely to wince at calling a quahog a clam, Floridians have not adapted the quahog nomenclature, preferring instead simply "clam," a term that derives from both Old English and Proto-Germanic terms clamm or klam which meant "to squeeze together" and which is remarkably easier to say on the dock after a six pack than is quahog.

Both species of clams are bivalve mollusks found in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Interestingly, hybridization regularly occurs in regions where both northern and southern clams are found. The northern quahog is a smaller clam, commonly referred to as cherrystone clams or littleneck clams. Wholesale dealers and retail stores prefer to sell the northern clam because it has a longer shelf life.

Florida tackle shops that I spoke with sell fresh clams (and frozen) and say the bait supply is shipped in from up north, like New Jersey. East coast anglers generally prefer the southern clam for bait because the larger-sized clams provide more usable meat for the hook.


Many people would be surprised to learn that clam production, or aquaculture, is an important part of Florida's sea food economy. Grown in 11 counties on both coasts of the state, clams are actually the most important aquaculture food item in Florida.

It's pretty much impossible to talk about the clam farming business in Florida without talking about the 1994 net ban. After gillnets were prohibited from state waters, many one-time netters found new careers as clam farmers. However, the state's clam farming programs had been in place for a number of years prior to the net ban. As early as 1987,13 growers reported production of 2.4 million clams.

In 1991, three years before Florida voters approved Amendment 3--the net ban--the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security initiated a federally-funded program to assist unemployed or underemployed oyster harvesters and other seafood workers to transition to jobs in shellfish aquaculture. Florida State Senator George Kirkpatrick (Fifth District) also championed workforce and economic development through aquaculture programs. Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) provided classroom and hands-on instruction through a program headquartered in Cedar Key: Project OCEAN (Oyster and Clam Education Aquaculture Network).

In 1993, more than 130 watermen completed the OCEAN aquaculture training program. The program's success led to the development of Project WAVE, which focused exclusively on clam aquaculture and was designed to support displaced net fishermen in the region. According to a history of the Cedar Key clam industry written by Suzanne Colson, currently the vice mayor of Cedar Key, and Leslie Sturmer of IFAS's Regional Shellfish Extension, 69 leases were granted for startup individual or family-operated clam farms from 1995 through 1997, just after the net ban amendment was passed.

By 1998, Cedar Key was growing more clams than any place else in the U.S.-despite having only been in business for five years.

Despite the clam industry's success, there is still evidence of resentment of the net ban and those who supported it. In fact, there is a "memorial" head stone outside of Cedar Key's City Hall that reads "In Loving Memory. Dedicated to the Commercial Net Fishermen of this Community. July 1,1995." Several clam operations, as well, make no bones about their bitterness on their company web pages, identifying that they were forced into the clam business by the net ban.

Such prognostications of economic doom may have been premature: In the two decades since the net ban, the clam industry has thrived in Florida. According to the most recent assessments by University of Florida researchers, sales of cultured hard clams in 2012 topped $39 million and the overall economic impact of clam farming is listed as roughly $53 million-nearly double that of Florida's better-known oyster industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Aquaculture (2013) identifies Florida as the fourth largest producer of farm-raised mollusks, reporting 132 farms. Florida actually leads the nation in clam farming, with 119 dedicated growers reporting sales.

Environmental and Angling Benefits of Clam Farming

As it turns out, shellfish aquaculture may contribute more to Florida than just jobs and satisfying dinners. Unlike many approaches to land-based farming, research shows shellfish aquaculture provides a number of environmental benefits. Research has shown that shellfish farming contributes to water clarity, nitrogen removal and diversity stimulus. Bivalves like clams and oysters filter waters some individuals can filter as much as 15 gallons per day. When multiplied by thousands of clams in a single farmed area, this translates to hundreds of millions of gallons of water being filtered by the farmed animals each day. As filters, clams and oysters can remove particles as small as 2 microns. Clams and other shellfish filter water to extract and digest bacteria and phytoplankton. Research out of Stanford University has shown that clams inadvertently filter out chemicals and other pathogens, such as herbicides and pharmaceuticals, helping cleanse the water of these pollutants. In certain California lakes and New York's Bronx River and Long Island Sound, tests have been run to see if introducing shellfish into these environments will help improve water clarity. Research published last summer indicates that, indeed, these tests prove the effectiveness of bivalves as water filters.

As for human health concerns, the Florida Dept, of Agriculture and Consumer Services monitors shellfish harvesting areas to ensure public safety. The department's shellfish sanitation initiatives evaluate on-site water quality as well as conditions, such as flooding, which might pose risks, closing areas accordingly. The same authority guides Florida residents who might enjoy digging wild clams or gathering oysters. The Division of Aquaculture, at, publishes the status of harvest areas.

From strictly a filtration standpoint, farm-raised clams contribute directly to a reduction in water turbidity, improving light penetration in the water which, in turn, contributes to healthy plant and animal growth in waters near clam farms. Likewise, the filtration helps reduce anoxia--low oxygen--in local waters. All in all, clam farming improves water quality, which inevitably improves fish habitat.

One of the most beneficial aspects of clam filtration is the clam's contribution to nitrogen removal from the water. Excess nitrogen--often a by product of farming and ranching--can lead to harmful algae blooms, a connection that's all too familiar to Floridians who've watched lakes or estuaries darken up following periods of rain or flood control releases.

When a clam feeds on microscopic organisms, the nitrogen in the organism is retained in the clam's body tissues and is then removed from the water when the clam is harvested. This process of denitrification promotes vitality in and around clam farms. Research conducted by scientists at the University of Maryland has shown that shellfish remove as much as 20 percent of the nitrogen through denitrification. The EPA has noted the benefits of shellfish farming as a means of promoting clean water.

Because the water quality tends to improve around clam farms, so too does the diversity of marine life tend to improve and increase. Studies from the University of Rhode Island that were published last year in the Journal of Shellfish Research show that baitfish, crustaceans, and invertebrates congregate both in the shellfish farm beds and the areas surrounding the beds in greater numbers than areas without farms. The structure of the farms provides reef-like cover for crabs, small fish and other forage food to hide. Inevitably, larger predatory fish seek out the forage species that clam bars attract.

While fishing inside the boundaries of clam farms is prohibited, the areas directly surrounding the farms are often rich with inshore species. When I fished areas neighboring Cedar Key clam farms recently, I found the water heavy with redfish, trout, and black drum. And, I noted an increase in numbers offish the closer I got to the clam farms.

I've spoken with clam farmers as they worked their beds. Several have asked that we specifically not fish too close to the beds or cast our lines along the restricted areas. Their motives were not greedy, but driven by safety concerns: Most of Florida's clam farms use soft bags made from a polyester mesh material to secure their crops--bags that seem to attract hook snags. The farmers I spoke with expressed irritation, explaining that too frequently when working with their clam bags they wind up being hooked by abandoned tackle snagged in their bags. Clam farm areas are conspicuously marked with signs indicating their boundaries and are identifiable by the rows of PVC or other stake materials used to anchor the clam bags.

Clams as Bait

From Virginia north along the Atlantic coast, the commercial harvest of the Atlantic surfclam drives a multimillion-dollar industry that leads the nation in commercial clam production and has been at the center of a good deal of fisheries management policy since the introduction of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976. Of course, it doesn't hurt business that this is the only source for surfclams in the world. In this same region, anglers have embraced the clam as bait, particularly when fishing for stripers. But, as I noted, outside of Brevard County, Florida anglers just haven't granted the same notoriety to the clam as a premiere bait.

Pompano anglers, however, will readily jump to the clam's defense. In many areas along Florida's east coast, small mollusks like donax and periwinkle clams make up a substantial portion of the pompano diet. The pompano's penchant for clam meat seems to amplify when presented with the tender quahog meat. (Try working clams along the coquina ledge in front of Patrick Air Force Base, for example).

A couple of suggestions for using clams as bait: First, only use fresh clams. Ask for them. Bait shops will often have baggies of frozen clams, but as the clams defrost, they tend to lose much of their solidity, melting into a viscous glop that stays on the hook about as well as grits.

Second, not all of the clam makes for good bait. The clam's "foot" is the most solid of its meat. On larger clams, the foot can be cut into strips that make a hearty bait and will stay solidly on the hook. This is why anglers tend to prefer the southern quahog, as its larger size offers more usable bait per clam. Other parts of the clam, like the mantle, gills and muscles may be used, but tend to be a bit smaller and more difficult to organize on the hook.

Many anglers will carry whole clams with them, breaking them open when they are ready to rig, leaving the shells along piers and beaches. If you have bought clams from a bait shop or seafood market, be sure to keep the receipt with you as evidence that your baits weren't collected in a potentially unlawful manner--during a closed season, for instance.

As I've said, freezing clam meat isn't really a reliable option for bait; however, there are a couple of other methods that will allow you to carry just the bait meat and not the shells, which is much more convenient when surf casting or kayak fishing. I recommend shucking and cleaning the clams the night before your planned fishing trip. Clean the gooey parts away from the tougher meats, and cut the meat into bait-sized portions, storing the pieces in a zip-lock bag. Refrigerate the meat, but do not freeze it. Some anglers prefer to brine their clams, much as one might brine mackerel, sardines, or other baits. The trick with brining clams, as opposed to bait fish, is that anglers will often freeze brined fish, but doing so with clams will only decrease their longevity. Keep the brined clams on ice or refrigerated, but not frozen.

Of course, lure manufacturers have worked to develop suitable clam imitators, but since the clam's virtue is its scent, not its swimming action, any artificial clam is designed around scent and taste. Fish Bites' E-Z clam, Fish Bites' Fish 'n' Strips clam, and Berkley Gulp! Saltwater Clam are all exceptional clam substitutes. I recommend them for both east and west coast fishing when targeting pompano, red drum, whiting and especially black drum. Of course, the one drawback to fishing with clams is that like any dead bait, clams will also attract scavengers like sail cats, rays, skates and sharks. Despite this, when it comes to targeting black and red drum, pompano, and other inshore species, the clam is a potent bait that really ought to be considered among Florida's A-list baits.

Recreational Clam Harvest Regulations

Florida has specific guidelines as to where and when clams and other shellfish may be taken. The openings and closings are posted by the Dept, of Agriculture. See and under Divisions and Offices, click on Aquaculture.

Also, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission enforces a 1-inch minimum thickness at the hinge, and a 5-gallons per person/no more than 10 gallons pervessel recreational bag limit.

As mentioned in the main story, if you're fishing with whole clams obtained at a market, keep the receipt with you. You may be asked to furnish it to an enforcement officer.
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Author:Dobrin, Sid
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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