People love Florida-farmed clams. They are great on pasta or to eat baked, steamed or raw. Sales of these munchable mollusks typically peak around holidays, but during the 2020 Memorial Day weekend, Florida clam farmers watched as markets for their product dwindled in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants and bars are the largest markets for clams, and their closures were a blow to Florida’s shellfish farming industry. A recent report by Florida Sea Grant-affiliated researchers estimates that between March and mid-May 2020, approximately $1.58M in sales revenue of Florida farmed clams was lost. This equates to about a 75 percent decline in sales for this period compared to the year before.

The plunge in sales meant that Florida clam farmers were left with thousands of clams that were quickly growing beyond their most marketable size. The situation was so dire that the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association and UF/IFAS held a clam give-away event, where cars could drive through and receive a free bag of clams and information on how to prepare them.

Florida Sea Grant tackled the problem by using it to help address another issue on the other side of the state. The 2020 Clam Buyback Program used NOAA COVID-19 “rapid-response” funding to purchase 450,000 of the outsized clams for use in ongoing shellfish restoration activities in the Indian River Lagoon. The idea was to assist clam farmers while giving a boost to efforts to restore clams in the lagoon.

Periodically, portions of the Indian River Lagoon are afflicted with algal blooms and other water quality issues. Clams can help combat these by filtering the water, in some cases up to 30 gallons a day per clam.

Todd Osborne at UF’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience has been using clams in water quality restoration research projects in the lagoon. He said that he was excited when Florida Sea Grant came to me with the idea.

“This project would not only help bolster the aquaculture industry when it was in dire need but it would greatly increase the number and genetic diversity of clams we could release in the IRL,” Osborne said. “In turn, these clams would also benefit the lagoon as they filter water and help improve the degraded ecosystem. When you consider all of the benefits of this project, the funding was effectively multiplied far beyond the initial dollar value of the clams purchased.”

Clams used in the project were trucked to the restoration sites over a series of weekends in fall 2020. A group of nearly 50 volunteers and partners, many using their own boats, transported the clams to the experimental leases in the lagoon.

By using Cedar Key clams to help the Indian River Lagoon, the project team was going full circle back to the origin of Florida’s aquacultured clam industry. In 1995, after a change in laws made it illegal to use gill nets, many Cedar Key fishermen were left without a job. A UF/ IFAS Extension agent affiliated with Florida Sea Grant worked with local fishermen to experiment with farming clams. After some trial and error, research and a lot of outreach, clam farming in Cedar Key took off, spawning a multimillion-dollar industry. The seed that was used to start those farms was grown from clams in the Indian River Lagoon.

Since that time, clam beds in the Indian River Lagoon have dwindled due to a number of factors, including environmental stress and overharvest. Researchers hope that distributing the descendants of those original farmed clams will help reestablish clams in the lagoon, which will help battle algae and may one day support a new industry.

The Clam Buyback program provided some relief to 47 clam aquaculture lease holders suffering from sales losses due to COVID‐19. The project site has been visited multiple times since the planting events to monitor survival and growth of clams. An assessment in February determined that 68 percent of the planted clams had survived and were growing.

“We are glad that this project was able to help clam farmers during this difficult time while also contributing to the health of the Indian River Lagoon and advancing the growing field of shellfish restoration,” said Sherry Larkin, Florida Sea Grant director. “We thank the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Aquaculture for helping streamline approvals, and look forward to working to better understand how using shellfish to help restore coastal environments can help both ecosystems and economies.”