Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Clam Farming With Kelly, His Dad, And Tropical Storm Alberto

Last Sunday, I went clam farming. All year long I had wanted to go out and work with my fellow teacher Kelly on his clam farm. It seemed that every time I would plan to go, some family event would pull me away. Last week, as we stood under cloudless blue skies, Kelly mentioned that he had to put a new crop of clams in on the weekend. Naturally, I invited myself one more time. I went home and told the family...do NOT plan for me to be around on Sunday afternoon. I'm going clam farming come hell or high water. (OK, remember that last part...)

So it was, I found myself driving the JEEP out to Cedar Key through sheets of rain and a buffeting wind. The clear blue skies of the past 3 months had vanished under the approach of Tropical Storm Alberto. As I crossed the first bridge leading into Cedar Key, I could clearly see whitecaps on the sheltered bayou waters. It was also clear that the tide, which should have been falling, was being held in by strong onshore winds from Alberto. That was bad. We would need a low tide for laying out the clam belts. It didn't look good.


I arrived at Kelly's Dad's house around 4:00pm and we set to work loading a specially modified, 19 foot Carolina Skiff with clam belts. A clam belt is made up of a series of clam bags that are linked together with zip ties to form a "belt of bags". Each clam bag is about 3 feet by 4 feet and is made of nylon mesh. Into each clam bag go hundreds of young clams. Each clam belt is anywhere from 20 to 30 feet long , depending on the number of bags it contains. Attached at intervals are foot long sections of PVC pipe that serve as the stakes to stake the clam belt to the seafloor. The clambelts are rolled for transport.

Each clam farmer leases a section of the shallow seafloor about a mile offshore of Cedar Key. A clam farmer like Kelly might have a million or more clams quietly growing on his or her 2 acre lease.

Our job on this stormy evening was to put about 160,000 clams down on the lease that Kelly, his Dad, and his brother in law manage.


Kelly had set these clams on the lease 3 months earlier when they were a few millimeters across and known as "clam seed". The clam farmers purchase "seed" from breeders and then place them on the lease for a few months until they grow to about the size of a quarter. At that point, they are known as "grow outs" and are pulled from the lease and divided up into larger bags. These are the bags that form the clam belts. Once in the larger bags, they are returned to the lease site to grow to market size.

Kelly had pulled these clams on Saturday and spent all weekend counting and separating them into the larger grow out bags. The clams can be out of the water for a day or so if kept cool, but time was up and these clams needed to get into the water.

That is why we could not wait for better weather. It was a case of going now or losing the crop.


A few minutes after loading the boat, we were zooming across the marsh under the steady eye of Kelly's dad...Let's call him Mr. B.
Almost 60 years as a commercial fisherman in these waters has given Mr. B. an uncanny sense of the location of every mudflat and oyster bar waiting to rip the bottom out a boat. He took us on a back of the marsh route to give us a little more shelter from the wind whipped waves that awaited us out in the open Gulf.

It was a beautiful thing. We flew a few feet from sandbars so shallow that birds were standing at the edge. There were no channel markers in this backcountry marsh, just subtle clues that Mr. B. could read...probably without even thinking about it.

Eventually, we had to enter the stormy open Gulf to reach the lease. When we left the shelter of the spartina grass, the Gulf pounded us. The boat was loaded with 12 clam belts, 3 men , and assorted gear, so we really got smacked by the oncoming waves. Plus, we were in a Carolina Skiff. I own one and they are rough, tough, wet boats...but they don't sink. This is a good thing.

Kelly commented on that unsinkable aspect,remarking that it was a good thing we were in such a boat, as we slammed into wave after wave, the spray coming into our faces in sheets. His dad responded, "Yeah, that's what they said about that old Titanic boat and it sank a long way down."

All around us were squalls and rain. Off in the distance, a forest of white PVC pipes sticking out of the Gulf marked the many leases of the Cedar Key clam farmers. They all looked alike to me, but Mr. B. and Kelly wove us between the posts until they found the PVC pipes that marked the boundaries of their lease.

We anchored the boat and Kelly stuck a long piece of PVC over the side to check the depth. About 7 feet, too deep to work yet. We need to be able to stand to do what we have come to do. We will have to wait for the tide to drop. By now it is about 5 pm.

As the boat bounced and fought the anchor line, Kelly explained that we will be rolling out each clambelt and staking it to the bottom by driving the one foot PVC pipe stakes into the mud. We will be doing this underwater, in almost zero visibility. "You'll have to work by feel, you won't be able to see anything."

Kelly looks around at the circling storms and says, "Dad, this is really bad."
Mr. B. agrees, "This is the worst weather we've ever tried to put clams down in"

I think about what that means. This man has a lifetime of experience out here.
There is some discussion as to whether we should just put the bags over and tie them together as a temporary hold.Later, after the storms had passed, they would have to be planted. It's risky though. The coming tropical storm could wash them away, plus, stacked in a pile, they would be more obvious to clam rustlers. Yes, there are low lifes who will rustle clams off a lease.

Kelly knows his regular job work schedule and the tropical storm make just tieing the clams off a difficult choice. He really wants to get these clams staked down for good this evening. We decide to go for it.

At about 6:00 pm, Kelly and I strap on stingray proof boots...kind of like snake boots, but made to be wet. We don our masks and weight belts, and go over the side. Mr. B. stays on board and manhandles clambelts to the gunwale where we can grab them and pull them into the water with us. He's over 70, just had surgery, and is strong as an ox.

The water is about 5 feet deep and the color of a mocha latte. Kelly locates the spot where we will begin and dives down to stake the end of the first clambelt. He surfaces, goes over the process one more time, and now it's time for me to earn my ticket.

I take a breath and dive down to the bottom. I am wearing a pair of white gloves and I can't see them until they are about 6 inches in front of my mask. On the bottom, I feel along the edge of the clam belt until I find a stake. I grab it and push it into the muddy bottom. Feel again. There's another stake, I push it in hard and then it's time to breathe. Up to the surface. Get a breath. Dive down, feel, push stakes, surface. Over and over again.

When we finish staking the first belt, Mr. B. tells us it took 20 minutes. We have to pick up the pace, there's no way we can finish before dark at that rate.

The second belt takes the same amount of time, as does the third. Then, a combination of a tide that is finally beginning to fall and my growing experience speeds up our progress. We do belt after belt and Mr. B. calls out our times from the bouncing boat..." 15 minutes on that one...12 minutes that time....7 minutes!" We begin to think we can get them all staked and accomplish the mission after all. Still, it is now after 8:00 pm and the sun has dropped below the squally clouds scudding to the west and threatens to disappear beneath the horizon. We are a well oiled machine now and the last few belts take 6 minutes each.

At 8:40 pm, I surface for the last time. All the clambelts are secured to the Gulf bottom. We did it.

We clamber back on board the skiff and weigh anchor. Kelly hands me a Gatorade which tastes like heaven. The sun has set and Mr. B. impresses me one more time this evening by flying the now lighter boat back through a low tide marsh in the dark.

Back at Mr. B's place, Kelly thanks me for the help, I thank him for the experience, and we say goodnight. The drive home through the dark woods is a bit soggy, but I am elated...and tired.

At home, I shower and fall asleep as my head hits the pillow...

...happy as a clam.

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Laura said...

Whoa, I can only imagine what the waves were like out on the gulf at that time. Diving in zero visibility takes guts!
I had no idea about the "seeds"- that was so interesting to read about. I'm going to show this post to hub when he gets in tonight. Here's to Kelly and Mr. B, hope their season is a successful one!

Lightnin said...

Great story! I remember when we went to CK for dinner that night you were telling us about the clam farms and the pvc pipe. Now I have a better feel for what you were talking about.
PS: Did the pond level rise any?

Abandoned in Pasadena said...

I am amazed...I had no idea about clam farming or how it was done. In-fact I never even gave it a thought that all that work went into raising clams.

And to have to be staking down clam belts with an impending hurrican approaching must have been very exciting. I liked Mr.B's statement about the Titanic...he's quite a character.

Thank you for the clam farming story...it was very, very interesting to read and now when I order clams I will know a little more about them and how they got to my table.

Thunder Dave said...

Mocha Latte? What kind of seafaring man discribes the color of the water as a Mocha Latte?

Ok, I have to admit that's what I order if I go to a Starbucks.

Excellent tale of trials on the water. You may have inspired me to right about one of the scariest times I've ever had with a tropical storm in Missouri, yup, a TP in MO!

Cathy S. said...

Have you seen the Florida Humanities Council exhibit and documentary about the effects of the net ban on Cedar Key and Cortez, Florida? Since seeing it, everytime I eat a clam, I think of the fisherman who were forced out of their livlihood and into clam farming becasue they weren't allowed to fish in the traditional ways anymore. Now that I know how hard the work is, I will say a prayer for them as well.

Thunder Dave said...

Good Lord, I've got some coordination issues going on here! That should have been TS in MO! Dang!

Zanne said...

This post was so informative, like Abandoned I never had a clue about clam farming. Flatlanders consider clams and oysters a rare delicacy since they're not readily available around here.

I'm suprised about one aspect of this - don't clams have to live buried in the sand? Can they live and grow just sitting in those bag? What do clams eat? How do they harvest the clams? If the bags of "grow-outs" are heavy, what must the weight be at harvest time? How do they possibly lift those bags out of the water? Will you volunteer for that tast? How long does it take before the "grow-outs" are ready to be harvested? How are the clams tranported to market? I imagine it must be a time sensitive transfer, or are his clams sent to processing plants?

See what happens when you work for a newspaper?

Debbie said...

WOW! Fascinating story. It sounds like you almost had a Discovery channel's "Deadliest Catch" experience. Except you were in the Gulf battling a tropical storm instead of the Bering Sea battling an ice storm.

roger said...

that was exciting. how long till they are market size? i'm guessing you might eat some of those clams.

don't give up your day job.

Terri said...

I began learning about clam farming when we started visiting the island and when I moved here, I did extensive research to learn more. And at every opportunity, I spoke to the locals to learn even more about it.
But I must say, this is one of the most in-depth, easily understandable and enjoyable pieces I've read about it. Exceptionally well done!
I totally admire the clam farmers on my island. It's not an easy job at all. But they have the tenacity and spunk to do it and provide us with those wonderful clams. I say bravo to them and a special bravo to you for braving the elements to help out and experience all of it.
Kelly and his dad are an inspiration to the rest of us. So major kudos to our clam farmers! And thank you for sharing this excellent writing.

Deb said...

Great post, FC! I had no concept of how clams were farmed before. Your descriptions of the salt marsh, the storm, and Mr. B are all so vivid. Thanks for taking us along on the adventure!

pablo said...

I knew about this but only in a general way, and I had no idea of the work involved. I love the idea of accumulating a variety of experiences. You never know when it will provide some sudden insight or simply make you a fine conversationalist. "Did I ever tell you about the time I went clam farming?" Fascinating!

And when I read about the "well oiled machine" I wasn't thinking it would be Gatorade you'd have back on the boat.

Mrs. S said...

All I can think of to say is - WOW. Wow that sounds fun and scary, wow I didn't know people could steer through low-tide in the dark, wow I'm glad the storm didn't get worse... wow, wow, wow!

Oh! And WOW! You took the time to share it with us!!!

Leslie said...

Thanks for the adventure. I could see it and hear it happening - the marks of a story well told. You are a treasure.

Ava said...

Sounds like you had quite the adventure!! Glad you finally got to go ... even if it was during a storm!


Hurricane Teen said...

So I thought I would miss this storm, but it turns out that I actually got more here in Hilton Head than I would have back at home...We got good 30-40 MPH winds with driving rain last night in some of the squalls. Exciting stuff. I can't wait to see what my rain gauge and anemometer say when I get home.

Floridacracker said...

Definitely murky worky.

The pond crept up some, but we still need more.

Lots of hard work goes into the steamed clam appetizer at your local seafood restaurant. These guys earn every penny.

...but could you visualize the exact color of the sea that day? Hmmmmm?
Yes, by all means write about your Missouri "tropical" storm.

Cathy S.,
I haven't seen the display, but I do know about the net ban changes. The fishermen of Cedar Key have made an amazing transformation to aquaculture of clams and in reality, they are generally better off financially. There next big challenge will be to not be driven from the islands by the hordes of wealthy newcomers who will settle on the island and price the fishermen off their land.

Your questions answered in order:
The bags will wind up semiburied in the mud, so the clams will be mostly buried.
Yes, they live and grow fine in the bags.
Clams eat plankton and feed by filtering the seawater.
The clam bags are manhandled from the mud, sometimes a hoist is used to assist.
I don't know the final bag weight, but can ask Kelly.
I have volunteered any time Kelly needs help and I am free. I loved it.
The clams grow to market size in about 9 months, faster than anywhere else in the country.
The clams are pulled, taken to a packing house on the island, and graded according to size. This part of it would feel familiar to you as it is similar to any agricultural packing house process. The clams are sorted, bagged, tagged, kept in cool storage, and then shipped all over the country. Whew!
These aren't chowder clams. These guys are harvested as delicous small steamers...tender and juicy.
Made me work on that comment, Zanne.

I will take battling the Gulf any day over the Bering Sea :)

i usually hear that when I sing or tell a joke :)
about 9 months for grow out.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Cedar Key is a unique place with unique characters. Gotta love it.

Thanks Deb!
Any time I go on an adventure, I'm taking y'all with me.

Did I ever tell you about the time I cut my finger off, caught a gator, battled hornets, arrested a time traveler, caught naked guy celebrating his birthday, got stung by a stingray, or went on a high speed chase through Cherokee NC?
...hey, I haven't shared those last two...hmmmmm.

Mrs. S,
Wow that was nice!

Thank you for the kindness. Every writer wannabe wants that compliment. Thanks.

It was the storm that made it more of an adventure, so in the end, I'm glad it was stormy.

Floridacracker said...

Hurricane Teen,
Glad you got to experience Alberto, even if it was outside of Florida.

Wayne said...

Neat story, FC. Glad you were able to risk your life to entertain us! Happy as a clam indeed.

Floridacracker said...

I was entertaining me buddy. You guys are a pleasant side effect.

Cathy S. said...

Interesting response about financial effects of the net ban, the Florida Humanities Council display and documentary tell a much bleaker story. I went to one the premiers, and it was a somber crowd that left the room. The display is at a musuem here now. It was done by Mike Jepson and Carlton Ward. Many interviews with and beautiful photographs of Cedar Key and Cortez fisherman. Catch it sometime when it is in your area.

doubleknot said...

Wow what an adventure. This is one that I just enjoyed reading instead of thinking I was there - you have a great memory to hold on to.

Floridacracker said...

Cathy S.,
Pictures and interviews can be used in lots of ways, depends on your point of view.
The net ban did put some fishermen out of business, but others adapted and targeted other species of fish, or took advantage of the free clam aquaculture training that the state offered. Also, it really should be called an "entangling net" ban. It did not ban all types of nets, just the most commonly used style used to take schooling species like mullet, spanish mackeral, etc. The fact is, we had become too efficient in the hunt for these species. Since the netban, fish stocks are increasing and their per pound price has increased.
The monetary value of the farmed clams of Cedar Key far outweigh that of the fish that are or were harvested. A few years after the netban when clam farming was starting to take off, you couldn't help but notice the huge number of shiny new pickup trucks at the docks.
I think being able to adapt (even tho he doesn't like the net ban) is one more reason to respect a waterman like Mr. B. He was in that first class of clam farmers after the ban.

Yeah it was a fun day. Kelly said I get to go back on a final harvest trip.

Halfmoon said...

Nice read, You might know a good friend of mine. Jon Gill?? He clams up there. I use to net fish in Crystal River back in the good ole days.