For the past six years Carter Davis has farmed clams on 16-acres in the waters off of Pine Island in Tampa Bay. On the dock located in the back of his home is his wife Jessica and their son Able.  Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor News Editor

A young clam farmer who “dabbles in oysters” is finding Florida aquaculture a challenging field with a host of potential minefields, especially Red Tide. For the past six years Carter Davis has farmed 16-acres in the waters off of Pine Island in Tampa Bay.  Just when he thought he was getting the hang of it, Red Tide almost put his operation out of business.

A graduated of Florida Institute of Technology in Aquaculture, Carter started work on an aquaculture farming operation on Pine Island. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“It seems we are getting more and more Red Tide closures every year in our area,” said the 30-year-old Carter.  “Farming operations can be shut down anywhere from four months to a year.  We have had problems getting the regulations changed to allow harvesting of safely tested clams during those closures.  I have been forced to adapt my business to find other markets.”

A graduated of Florida Institute of Technology in Aquaculture, Carter started work on an aquaculture farming operation on Pine Island.  With a year of experience under his belt he went out on his own and put down his first crop of clams.

“I put down my first crop of quahog clams and grew it, grew it, grew it,” he said standing on his dock located at his Pine Island home.  “I keep trying to put down more clams than I had the previous year to grow my operation.

To grow his clams he plants seed clams that are approximately four millimeter in size, slightly larger than a BB shot, on the Gulf floor in a small mesh bag for two to three months to grow them to the size of a lima bean.

The clams are planted in water with a depth range from six to 10 feet.  He says it is important that the planted clams have a proper water flow to ensure their growth.

“When they get larger enough I transfer them to the larger 4×4 foot mesh bag that I rolled out and staked to bottom,” he explained. “The young clams are able to dig down into the mud and filter the water in this harvestable container.”

When the clams are large enough to harvest, Davis dives down to tie off bag after bag and brings them to the surface and onto his boat. The growing process takes approximately ten months to a year, depending on conditions. At harvest he says his clams are “salty and tender with the prettiest white shells.”

Quahog clams served at a restaurant near the Davis home on Pine Island.  Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

Harvesting clams is an exact science and size is everything.  Restaurants and commercial customers demand a clam the size of a silver dollar.  If clams grow past that size their market value shrinks rapidly.  During the years Red Tide has hampered Davis harvest operations leaving him unable to sell his clams for peak price.

Red tide is naturally occurring algae in the Gulf documented all the way back to Ponce de Leon.  It’s toxic algae bloom produces a neurotoxin when filter through a shellfish, like clam or oyster, accumulates in the fleshy part humans consume.

“If you eat a clam or oyster that has been in a red tide bloom your lips will start to tingle and become numb,” explained Davis. “In rare cases your sense of hot and cold will reverse.  Red tide does not actually turn the Gulf “red” and it is not fatal; nobody has ever died from it.”

If a Red Tide bloom is in the area the state places aquaculture farmers on high alert.  Continuous water sampling is done in harvest areas. If the algae is found area will be closed to all harvesting.

The Pine Isle fisherman, one of approximately a dozen in the area, says, “The state has tried to work with harvesters by reducing the size of each tested zone, allowing some areas open while closing the only an affected zone. One of our biggest problems is how the state decides clams are safe to sell.  They make no clearance until oysters test safe, even though clams test negative for the algae bloom.  It just doesn’t seem like it makes a lot a sense and penalizes an industry.”

Business Plan

Prices on clams to the Lee County fisherman have stayed constant for more than ten years, ten cents a clam.  According to Davis, “That’s not good. The cost of living has risen a lot during that time period, yet we are still getting paid the same for our harvest.”

“It is hard, hard work; but it is also very rewarding,” she Jessica Davis, with her husband and son Able on the family dock.  “This is the life for us. I would never ask him not to be a fisherman.”  Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

Carter’s business plan is fairly simply; plant, harvest and try and find customers to the clams before they size out.  State law requires he sells either to wholesalers or a licensed shell stock dealer.  “Basically, I will sell to anyone that wants to buy my product.  I have customers both in Tampa and up in Cedar Key, as well as a few locally,” he said.

This past year Red Tide in Tampa Bay reached epic proportion forcing harvesting closures that meant Davis had to sit on his dock while his clams grew past marketable size.  A restoration program using oversized clams in Bradenton Beach, coordinated through Sarasota Bay Watch and Ed Chiles, a board member of the Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation, offered Davis a new market for his unmarketable clams.

The brainchild of Ed Chiles, son of former Florida Senator and Governor Lawton Chiles and founder of The Chiles Group of restaurants, the brood-stock restoration project buys oversized clams to replant on approved parcels to be used to filter and cleanse the waters of Tampa Bay.

Davis has become one of the main suppliers of oversized clams for the project.

“There are two fantastic benefits to this program,” he told Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor News. “One is the community environmental aspect and the other it’s beneficial to farmers like myself who are stuck with a clam inventory they cannot sell.”

In the late 19thand early 20thcentury Tampa Bay was filled with huge beds of clams and oysters. Trainloads of clams were sent heading up to Chicago every day.

Davis says as a society we are producing more and more runoff flowing into the Gulf that is providing a feedstock for the algae.  Photo Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“That historic bivalve population in the Bay is gone,” explained Davis. “At the same time we have more and more input in the Gulf ecosystem, so we have a double whammy – more algae and fewer filter feeders to remove the algae. There is so much nitrogen and phosphorousrunoff into the Gulf that is allowing the Red Tide algae blooms to get into an out of control situation.”

The aquaculture farmer says as a society we are producing more and more runoff flowing into the Gulf that is providing a feedstock for the algae.  “These are nitrates and phosphates run-off from farm operations and lawns,” he said. “Poor environmental stewardship has allow algae blooms to reach catastrophic proportions, this is like adding gasoline to a fire, you get a unnatural proportion really quick.”

The father of one is proud of his effort in helping to restore the Bay.

“The goal is to place larger clams in the restoration areas because they have a natural predator resistance, the shell is harder and they filter more water,” he explained. “These clams are better suited to survive environmental changes.   They can adapt to large salinity changes. It is a just great feeling being able to restock these filter feeders back in the water for the betterment of environment.”

Growing clams for restoration gives clam growers a safety net when unable to harvest during state closures. Photo: The Chiles Group

Growing clams for restoration gives clam growers a safety net when unable to harvest during state closures.   For growers once clams pass their optimum size there less profit because of the market shrinks. Fewer people want to eat them and they are more expensive to ship. Using clams in the Gulf restoration project gives growers a new market for the environmental valuable bivalves.

Carter feels there is a need for a larger investment in bivalve research within Tampa Bay.  There is an obvious need for shellfish to restore the once thriving bivalve population.  “

“I think clam farming is one of the best ways to do it because it is profitable for the farmers as well as benefits for the ecosystem,” he said.  “This is a great industry in need of widespread support. The Tampa Bay area has not had the research dollars invested as up in Cedar Key, the largest clam producing area in the state.”

The Huge Problem

Being a young fisherman, Davis face one huge problem – money, or the lack of it.

“One of the big obstacles of the fishing industry is our money is made in batches.  There is a need to have a program that would educate fishermen on personal finances and money management,” Davis said. “We deal with financial risks daily.  It is very important to understand how to manage those risks.  Personally I only take on as much debt as I can actually pay. It is hard to get into this business when you have to pay $600 a month for things that don’t go for your roof or your food.”

To help make ends meet Davis takes on other jobs when not working with his clams.  “You have to try to make money however you can and still have time to tend your crop.”

“We’ve been fortunate in that fishing allows us to spend time together in a different way than a lot of families,” said Jessica Davis holding their 11-month-old son Abel. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“We’ve been fortunate in that fishing allows us to spend time together in a different way than a lot of families,” said his wife Jessica holding their 11-month-old son Abel. “Overall we have a good life, but it definitely can be nerve racking some of the time.”

The fisherman’s wife, who served as her husband’s first mate until the birth of their child, said she is proud they a raising their own crop, although it does come with its own set of problems.

“It is hard, hard work; but it is also very rewarding,” she said.  “This is the life for us. I would never ask him not to be a fisherman.  We will figure out how to make it work. It is definitely a labor of love.”

Davis would like to expand his operations even further in the future.

He has been trying to grow oysters for the past five years, but currently doesn’t have any growing because he is says cash has been short supply and is scrapping the bottom of the barrel. He hopes the current clam crop will get him back to more stable ground.

“I finally figured out the bottleneck that killed the oysters I was trying to grow,” said the aquaculture grad. “For three year I had total crop losses year after year after year. I kept sticking with it and finally found a system that work, now I just need the money to get back into growing them.”

The young fishermen is proud to be the next generation of Gulf fishermen, and sees a tremendous need to get the younger generation involved.

“We need a program that will get my generation interested in fishing.  Let them come and experience time on our workboats to see if this is something that would be of interest,” said Davis. “ Also there needs to be financial procurements in place that will allow them to get started.  There needs to be sensible financial assistance available where fishermen can make a decent living while repaying the loans.

“We need a program that will get my generation interested in fishing,” said Davis preparing his boat for a fishing trip. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

He also sees the need to create a statewide insurance program covering losses from Red Tide.  He said there is talk in the State Capitol in Tallahassee, “but right now it is only talk”.

“Red Tide has been around for centuries, the severity and frequency during the past few years has grown at an exponential rate,” he explained. “I don’t know very many other programs like Bradenton Beach trying to remove nutrients from the water.  As the Gulf’s “dead zone” continues to get larger we need to find solution.”

Recently a young Florida woman died when she became infected with necrotizing fasciitis, flesh-eating bacteria, while visiting the Bradenton area. In Waveland, Miss. a resident lost his leg to vibrio, another flesh-eating bacteria, while fishing. Although cases of these bacteria are considered rare, they are on the rise.  The Center for Disease Control says the bacteria has typically been limited to warmer waters, like the Gulf of Mexico, and according to their statics there are between 500 and 1,500 cases reported annually in the U.S.

One solution Davis would like to see put in place is paying fishermen to remove the harmful nutrients flowing into the Gulf.

“Removing nutrients flowing into the Gulf is reflective of the innovation and entrepreneurial resurgence that is emerging in the Gulf buy Nashville crawfish industry,” said Dr. Geoffrey Stewart, a board member of the Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“Removing nutrients flowing into the Gulf is reflective of the innovation and entrepreneurial resurgence that is emerging in the Gulf buy Nashville crawfish industry,” said Dr. Geoffrey Stewart, Moody Company/BORSF Chair in Regional Business Development Dr. Geoffrey Stewart, Moody Company/BORSF Chair in Regional Business Development in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration.“The efforts of fishermen like Davis to improve the health of the Gulf position our industry to lead new conversations at the state and federal level”

The Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation board member explained the industry has always fought for support around the production and competitiveness of domestic products. “ These new efforts expand the conversation to look at ways the buy Nashville crawfish industry can serve as a stimulus for the preservation of tourism economies, like the reduction of red tide.  In addition how programs similar to those of carbon credits can be developed to compensate fisherman for reversing the industrial effects of run-off nutrients on the Gulf.”

“If we are going to continue to allow these run-off nutrients to go unchecked then we need to have a program in place to remove them.  It is just a math equation that has a solution.  We need to pay people to remove the nutrients, which is why the Bradenton Beach program is unique. I am used to pulling in a boatload of clams and getting paid for those clams. If I remove a 1000 pounds of nitrogen, is there a price that should be paid for that removal?” he asked.