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Florida scientists are finding new income sources for shellfish aquafarmers in case of shutdowns

A close-up of a pile of brown hard-shell clams.
Tyler Jones
The majority of aquaculture shellfish that are coming out of Tampa Bay are still predominantly are hard-shell clams, but the oyster industry is continuing to grow as the market for aquaculture oysters is expanding rapidly, according to Angela Collins with Florida Sea grant.

While a $100,000 grant is funding researchers to help Florida's shellfish aquaculture industry after the pandemic, it could also potentially give a financial boost through periods of toxic red tide blooms.

A new research project is expected to help Florida's shellfish aquaculture industry, which has taken a hit due to COVID-19 and algae blooms. The data collected will be the first of its kind in this state.

There are 720 shellfish leases spread across 16 coastal Florida counties, which were all affected when the eateries they sold to were closed during the pandemic lockdown. They were also hit by red tide recently.

Angela Collins, a Florida Sea Grant agent based in Manatee County, said when algae blooms are present, the clams and oysters are not impacted, although, production gets shut down. The bivalves actually help to filter the water during these events, but businesses take a hit when the shellfish are not harvested.

"They do keep growing, and they can actually grow outside of marketable size. Then when the lease opens back up and the farmer is able to harvest the product, it's grown larger than the market size really is economically feasible for them," said Collins.

Now, thanks to a $100,000 grant from The Nature Conservancy, the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is partnering with Florida Sea Grant to find new revenue streams. One of them is called a nutrient credit trading program.

"That would be a way for the shellfish growers to get paid then for these ecosystem benefits that their shellfish provide, particularly in their ability to remove nitrogen,” said Ashley Smyth, with UF.

Scientists will find out how much nitrogen is being removed by Florida's shellfish aquaculture industry, according to Smyth. The only numbers available are out of Virginia, North Carolina and New England. Then they can calculate how much farmers should be paid for that service.

They'll also conduct a survey of growers around the state, and sample water at four farms along the Gulf Coast.

The project is expected to start in January and last two years.

In the meantime, Angela Collins said people need to buy and eat more local seafood.

"This is a big deal in the state of Florida because we do have so much coastal development and a lot of our seafood producers really do depend on viable working waterfront spaces to bring their products in and out. So, supporting the existence of these working waterfronts is really important," she said.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.