Clam farming industry prepares for oil spill impacts

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By The Staff

The clam farming community met last week to begin preparing for potential oil spill impacts.  Following is a summary of topics discussed. 


Shellfish is Safe

First and foremost is the need to ensure buyers and consumers that our clams and oysters and other seafood currently harvested are safe and have not been impacted by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Misinformation about the conditions in Gulf waters may unnecessarily impact the industry.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson issued a press release addressing this concern. “Our shellfish being harvested right now are fine, and I don’t want people watching reports of the oil spill to think differently,” Bronson said. “If and when Florida waters are impacted by the spill, we will take immediate action to close the waters to commercial and recreational harvesting.”  The press release is posted at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) website www.doacs.state.fl.us.

In addition, an advisory compiled by Dr. Steve Otwell, University of Florida seafood specialist, answers questions regarding seafood from Florida’s Gulf coast. This is posted at the Florida Sea Grant’s website www.flseagrant.org. Both documents can be used in providing answers to the public.


Shellfish Response Plan

Molluscan shellfish (clams, oysters) are regulated in the state by the DACS Division of Aquaculture (www.FloridaAquaculture.com).

The Division has developed emergency regulatory responses should hydrocarbons from the Louisiana oil spill reach Florida estuaries. Observance of oil products by DACS staff within 24 hours of affecting a shellfish harvesting area will result in a precautionary temporary closure, at sunset, of the affected area.

The distribution of oil products within the area will then be continually observed. This proactive plan prevents consumption of shellfish before potentially becoming contaminated with hydrocarbons. The Division recognizes that no known illnesses due to hydrocarbons have been reported from commercial or recreational shellfish harvests in Florida over the past 40 years; however, all possible chronic human health problems that could be associated with low levels hydrocarbons in foods are not known. 

Division staff are currently collecting shellfish prior to any contamination for baseline characteristics. Temporary closures of shellfish harvesting areas are well understood by industry as closures due to management plans (e.g., rainfall or river stage) or emergency plans (e.g., red tide) are regularly implemented.  Less understood is reopening criteria for a hydrocarbon closure as no specific public health standards have been developed for hydrocarbons in shellfish tissues. Analytical tests of affected shellfish for contaminants would be coupled with sensory evaluations. For more information, contact David Heil, Assistant Division Director, at (850) 488-4033.     


Seafood Sensory and Other Sampling Efforts

In addition, the NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program (www.seafood.nmfs.noaa.gov) is collecting baseline reference samples of seafood directly from Gulf waters and from wholesale outlets.

These samples will be used to recalibrate personnel who have previous inspection training to detect oil contamination. The personnel will offer sensory training to each affected State to develop a larger pool of trained individuals to perform routine, ongoing sensory analysis to help both government and industry.

Other sampling is being initiated by an academic oil spill taskforce headed up by the Florida State University (oilspill.fsu.edu). Baseline sampling of water and sediments prior to impact is being coordinated to provide assistance with ecological and habitat implications.


Crop Documentation

Unfortunately, USDA crop disaster assistance programs (e.g., Farm Service Agency’s NAP and Risk Management Agency’s pilot clam crop insurance program) do not cover crop losses associated with pollution, which an oil spill is considered.

Clam crop damages from the spill would have to be recovered from the responsible party, BP.

It is not too early to update records and document crop inventory. Types of damages could include closure of shellfish harvesting, lost sales revenues, employee lost wages, loss of market, damage to shellfish, damage to equipment and time spent responding to and documenting the spill.  Also it is important to keep lease rental fees and aquaculture certificates current.

Visit the U.S. Coast Guard, National Pollution Funds Center’s website www.uscg.mil/ccs/npfc to see what is being recommended for business documentation.


Additional Information and Contingency Planning

Representatives of the Statewide Clam Industry Task Force have met “ad hoc” with state agency and university representatives via conference call to begin discussing potential contingency plans for the industry. Any clam industry member may bring questions or concerns to this group.

Cedar Key representatives include Rose Cantwell, Sue Colson, Ricky Cooke, Mike Hodges, Dan Solano, Chris Topping, and Rick Viele.


Leslie Sturmer, UF Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Program, can be reached at (352) 543-5057 for questions or further information.