Digging Out and Raking In: Cedar Key Clams

Cedar Key, Florida

NOTE: A legal size B&W copy of the 1884 Cedar Key Map can be purchased at the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum for under $10.

A narrow, sunshiny sprawl of sand defines the coastal town of Cedar Key. Plucked from the coast of Florida and floating in the warm Gulf of Mexico, the idyllic island has long hosted men and sea life alike, the two twisting in centuries of symbiotic relationships. Hundreds of years ago, American Indians settled on the land and dove into her surrounding waters, sustained on vibrant oyster and fish colonies.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as communities cropped up on Cedar Key, the new residents took once again to the sea. The Gulf was home to a plethora of valuable edibles, most significantly sea turtles and oysters. Early fishermen took advantage of those natural resources, scouring the waters and selling their hunted vendibles to a clambering public. But their early passion stripped the seas, exhausting natural oyster beds and eradicating the sea turtle population.

Cedar Key’s citizens have always relied on the sea for their livelihood

Cedar Key’s citizens have always relied on the sea for their livelihood

The twentieth century brought destruction to Cedar Key, as hurricanes tore through tenuous settlements. Yet the ocean still provided, and residents remained. Commercial fishing sustained the majority of Cedar Key’s population throughout the twentieth century. But in 1994 a way of life that had sustained generations of fishermen for centuries suddenly disappeared.

That year the state of Florida banned net fishing in all of its forms. The law outlawed net fishing for three miles into the Atlantic Ocean and for a shocking nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Though the law was intended to preserve wildlife by preventing dangerous over-fishing of species and accidental capture of mammals like turtles and dolphins, it endangered the livelihood of at least twenty-five Cedar Key families dependent on commercial fishing, a craft they had gleaned from their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents.

Clam farmers pin bags of clams to the seafloor, where they mature for a year before harvest

Clam farmers pin bags of clams to the seafloor, where they mature for a year before harvest

And yet the sea provided—with a little help from the state. In order to rectify their ruination of Cedar Key’s major form of commerce, the state established a new industry: clams. Through an initiative called Project Wave, the government provided extensive training in clam farming for those families severely affected by the fishing ban, affording them a new lifestyle in their old home, the waters off Cedar Key. And in true forty-acres-and-a-mule fashion, former fishermen were also given two two-and-a-half-acre plots of their own to practice their new craft.

The environment and climate of Cedar Key proved to be the perfect breeding ground for clams

The environment and climate of Cedar Key proved to be the perfect breeding ground for clams

Since that time, aquaculture has grown to a multimillion-dollar industry in Cedar Key. By 1998, a mere four years into the business, tiny Cedar Key was producing more clams than anywhere else in the country. Cedar Key’s location proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the bivalves. Unlike other clam farms in harbors or sounds with stale waters, the Gulf is constantly refreshed and flushed with fresh water. The uniquely muddy and sandy sediment of its floors fosters growth for a variety of types of clams. And the subtropical climate proved ideal; phytoplankton, clams’ favorite food, flourishes in the warm waters.

In shallow waters around the island, just four feet deep, farmers plant bags of clams. The polyester bags, hardy enough to withstand currents and layers of shifting sands, are pinned to the gulf’s floor. Farmers let the bags ruminate for a year, during which time the tiny clams, tucked in their pearly shells, grow to good eatin’ size.

Clams from Cedar Key are enjoyed across the country

Clams from Cedar Key are enjoyed across the country

Cedar Key is home to a handful of independent clam fishermen, but recent years have again threatened their industry. Larger, capitalistic companies threatened Cedar Key’s natives, gathering groups of plots and monopolizing the clam industry. But Cedar Key’s citizens fought back and preserved their new lifestyle by preventing lease expansions.

On an island like Cedar Key, the sea and the land become one. Citizens are as comfortable in the water as on shore, amphibious creatures who take to the water without gills. And with a thriving clam industry and nothing but sunshine on the horizon, these seaborne citizens will preserve their traditional lifestyle for generations to come.

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